Okay, we’ve made it to Day 2 of this countdown. In case you missed the first set of 10 albums, aka #50-41, you can click here to bring yourself up to speed. The collection of records you’ll find below has a little something for everybody, I’d say. Well okay, maybe not EVERYBODY. But there’s some great synth pop, some punk rock, some electronica, some hip hop, and a little bit of experimental whatnot in there for good measure. If there’s a theme to be pulled from this portion of the countdown, it’s that change is inevitable, and can often turn out for the best. Anyways, let’s just get right into it. Here’s the Top 50 Albums of 2014: #40-31!
Join me after the jump for a collection of photos that I took on Day 2 (Saturday) of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Photos are arranged by set time. They are also available in higher resolution on Facebook. Check out my full recap of the day, as well as the rest of the festival coverage by going here.
Note: There are no photos of Saturday headliners Neutral Milk Hotel featured here at their request.
After a relatively calm and relaxing start to the weekend on Friday courtesy of artists like Sharon Van Etten and Sun Kil Moon, Saturday at the Pitchfork Music Festival found quite a bit more rhythm and energy and was all the better for it. Not only that, but with plenty of hip hop, R&B, electronica and loud rock bands to go around, it was also the most widely diverse day of the weekend. As with Friday, I attempted to scatter myself around Union Park as much as possible to get a little sample of just about everything. On the whole,the day was rather delightful. Here’s my recap of how it all went down.
I skipped out on the first couple of bands on Saturday so I could finish some writing and post my recap from Friday. That may not have been the best idea as it turns out, because I got word from a few different people that sets from Twin Peaks, Ka and Circulatory System were all incredible and some of the day’s highlights. Of course there were plenty of highlights later in the day too if you knew where to look for them. I arrived on the premises in time to catch most of Wild Beasts‘ performance, which made for a lovely start to Saturday. Their dark and at times intense melodies thankfully translated well to the sunny outdoor festival setting, and much of the crowd danced along accordingly. Singer Hayden Thorpe looked a little toasty wearing a denim suit, and given the highly sexual nature of many of the band’s songs, if he didn’t mind the warmth perhaps leather would have been more appropriate. While a majority of the set list focused on their most recent album Present Tense, they did incorporate a fair amount of older material as well, including a glorious version of “Bed of Nails.”
The last time Cloud Nothings performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, their set got rained out about halfway through. They were in the final couple of minutes of an extended jam session when the power was cut to avoid a serious safety hazard. The band finished the song anyways, even though you could barely hear them. It was an incredible and memorable moment, one of the best in the history of the festival. Now two years later, the band still seems angry they weren’t allowed to finish their set back then. They come out like a blitzkrieg attack and throw everything they have into a rage-filled performance that doesn’t let up for more than 45 minutes. It drives the crowd into such a frenzy that security is forced to kick all of the press photographers out of the pit within two minutes due to an excess of crowd surfing and moshing. I didn’t visibly see anybody get injured during that set, but wouldn’t be surprised in the least if it happened. Still, it was an incredible display of aggression and release, which I think everyone desperately needed. Mark them down as one of Saturday’s best, no question about it.
Because he’s a member of my Class of 2014, and because his debut EP Worth is….worth your time, I stopped by the Blue Stage for a bit to see how Mas Ysa (Thomas Arsenault) was doing. For the most part, his set was going relatively smoothly. His setup was basically an army of varying different electronic machines on a table, and he spent the majority of time pushing buttons and twisting knobs to get the particular beats and sounds desired. Not the most exciting thing to watch, though Arsenault made things significantly more interesting simply by his behavior and facial expressions. When he’d be playing around with various sounds, more often than not this expression of extreme pain came across his face. Of course he wasn’t in any actual pain, it was just how the music was affecting him on an emotional level. You could hear it in his vocals too, which were also modulated with who knows what sorts of effects that emphasized his upper register while giving off the impression he was singing underwater. Those vocal moments were also when he broke away from his table of electronics to bring a greater physicality to the performance and the points he was trying to get across. My only real issue was that it didn’t always sound like Arsenault was singing on-key the whole time. Maybe it was the modulation effects or maybe it’s his own unique yelping style, but there were moments when I genuinely said to myself, “That doesn’t sound quite right.” All the instrumental stuff was fine and great, it was just the vocals every now and then that threw me off.
Speaking of throwing people off, Pusha T wasn’t exactly doing himself any favors by starting his set 35 minutes late. Apparently his DJ failed to show up on time, and that was the cause of the delay. As a result, he did his best to make the most of the 25 minutes left for his time slot. He raced through track after track, often cutting each one off after a verse or two, just to ensure he touched on the maximum amount of his catalogue. In spite of everything, it was a pretty decent set, almost as if Pusha was working extra hard to knock it out of the park to make up for the earlier issues. It makes me wonder though how much better it might have been had he used those first 35 minutes and actually performed full tracks instead of only giving us a little taste of each. Maybe next time.
tUnE-yArDs remains a formidable live act, as Merrill Garbus and her band continue to grow with each new record. When she performed at Pitchfork a couple of years ago, she was trapped on the smaller Blue Stage in the early afternoon, yet still managed to deliver one of the weekend’s finest and most remarkable performances. Now graduated to a big stage with a late afternoon slot and a gigantic crowd, she sought to make the most of it. Honestly, while I loved just about every second of the show, it also disappointed me a little. She’s touring in support of the new album Nikki Nack, and devoted much of the set list to songs from that record, which quite frankly isn’t her best. It’s not a bad record by any stretch, nor was her performance, but I feel almost like her ferocity has somewhat diminished. Like, before she was an underdog, but now she’s the alpha and is taking a victory lap. As little as a year or two ago, she would build almost every single song using loops, would go beyond what’s on record to have fun in extended jam sessions, and would invigorate the crowd by yelling things like, “Do you wanna live?” There wasn’t much of any of those things this time around, and now I kind of miss them. Her voice is as powerful as ever though, and the songs are still amazing, not to mention there’s all sorts of polyrhythms and crazy percussion. The point is, there’s still tons to love about tUnE-yArDs, just maybe not quite as much as there was before.
Saturday was a big day for my Class of 2014, and I was particularly excited to see how Kelela would fare in a festival environment. She makes some fascinating experimental R&B, which is nice because it breaks away from some of the more standard stuff that gets the bulk of the attention these days. Backed by only a DJ, she worked the stage with total confidence and control, sticking largely to tracks from her Cut 4 Me mixtape. That brought a different sort of energy to her set – one that was equal parts upbeat, sensual and intimate. The ability to conjure something like that up on a sunny, late afternoon outdoor stage is a rare quality, and it attracted more people over time like moths to a flame. That, and her smooth, syrupy vocals just made you feel good all over. I was quite impressed, mostly that she truly lived up to the hype that goes along with being a promising young artist. Whatever she does next, it should be pretty great.
There’s not a whole lot that I want to say about Danny Brown‘s set, mostly because I wasn’t paying close attention throughout most of it. When I did, all evidence suggested that the crowd was having a great time. When I say great, I mean GREAT. Like hands waving, jumping around, smiling and laughing sort of great. Perhaps that’s because Brown was powering through all of his most excessive and salacious material, while completely ignoring the more introspective and sincere tracks in his catalogue. That’s understandable given the summer festival setting, but also a bit shallow on the whole. You can celebrate with “Smokin’ and Drinkin'” and get into a “Kush Coma,” but those are the favorite topics of almost every other rapper out there. Brown could have separated himself from that world for at least part of the set, and it would have made a great difference. Instead, he told the crowd he wanted to hang out and party. Not much wrong with that. Not much right either.
What can be said about St. Vincent‘s performance at Pitchfork? Nothing really. Over the course of the last several years, Annie Clark has become a powerhouse of rock and roll. Put a guitar in her hands and watch her conquer even the most apathetic of music lovers. Following her highly choreographed live show and tour with David Byrne in 2012 and 2013, the 2014 version of St. Vincent has incorporated many of those same ideas into her sets. There are certain routines for most songs, followed very precisely by Clark and her bandmates. It lacks a certain spontaneity, but looks pretty cool. Besides there’s still plenty of room for freestyling, particularly on the guitar solos, which she absolutely ripped through on tracks like “Rattlesnake” and “Marrow.” Then there’s the slow descent into madness that is the show-stopping finale of “Your Lips Are Red,” leaving her thrashing around in the crowd and on the ground, making all sorts of sonic hell with her guitar. Not only is it thrilling to watch, but also thrilling to listen to. I’ve never ever seen a bad St. Vincent show, and sincerely hope that I never will.
My final stop by the Blue Stage on Saturday was to catch part of the set from the third Class of 2014 artist performing that day, FKA twigs. The R&B artist has been strongly building up hype over the last couple of months with the announcement of her debut album due out in mid-August, and preceded the white hot new single “Two Weeks.” Her set presented a great way to preview the new material as well as get further absorbed into the unique world that she has carved out for herself. The end results were decidedly mixed. She was supported on stage by a total of three percussionists with electric drum pads, which were used for both rhythmic purposes as well as to trigger samples and beats. In some ways her songs were even thinner and more skeletal than Kelela’s earlier in the day, which would be fine if you couldn’t hear the sounds of St. Vincent’s roaring guitar out in the distance. twigs, aka Tahliah Barnett, didn’t do a whole lot to help herself early on either, particularly as the vocals for her first song were more whispered than they were sung. Of course there was steady improvement after that, and it seemed like she found her footing as she moved around the stage dancing to the beats and softly cooing as required. Try though she might, Barnett was unable to reach the same level of intimacy nor display the same level of confidence and poise that Kelela had already shown was possible. The two artists aren’t the same and certainly have their own unique styles, just at the moment its clear one is more practiced and better at performing for a large outdoor crowd than the other. twigs managed to pull in a pretty sizable crowd who were rabid fans eager to hear material from EP1, EP2 and the forthcoming LP1, and most I’m sure felt like they got exactly what they wanted. Personally, I’m intrigued to see if a dark, indoor venue would make for a better live delivery system of her gorgeously fragile songs.
Having seen Jeff Mangum perform solo back in 2012, I was pretty sure what to expect when it came to Neutral Milk Hotel‘s headlining set on Saturday night at Pitchfork. Sure, the songs and setlist were just about the same, but it turned out to be a far different beast than anticipated. First all of the songs sounded mightier and more energized with the full band behind them. In particular, “Holland, 1945” and “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2-3” hit with such a great impact that it drove the crowd into a frenzy that included a strong push forward to get closer to the stage, followed by some actual moshing, which is not really something you’d ever expect from a Neutral Milk Hotel show. There were sing-alongs galore, especially for anything on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and the middle part of the set that was decidedly short on that material allowed the earlier insanity to mellow out a bit. The night wrapped up with Mangum taking a largely solo turn on the epic “Oh Comely,” which is exactly as it should be. With a strict no photos/filming policy (even the video screens were shut off), there was a certain comfort in knowing that the crowd wouldn’t be preoccupied with capturing the show on their phones and instead just living in that moment for once, acknowledging others around you and realizing we’re all in this together. That was probably the band’s intention, and I exited Union Park that evening feeling tired but also more connected.
Of the three days that comprise this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, I think that Saturday might be the most eclectic and strange. If you love hip hop, R&B or electronica, there’s a whole lot of wild choices to make. There’s also plenty of other genre-baiting stuff too, in accordance with the different strokes for different folks balance. I will say this much though: the quality of artists here is completely off the charts. Some of the choices you’ll need to make might be a little harder than you think. Which is why I’ve put together this handy preview guide to try and provide some sort of guidance. As a reminder, the artists are listed by the hour block in which they’ll be performing, and my official recommended picks are denoted with a **. In case you missed any of my previous posts, you can click here for the Artist Guide, which features music from every single artist on this year’s lineup. You can also have a look at the Friday Preview Guide as well, should you be attending multiple days. Enjoy, and share who you’re most excited about seeing this year in the comments!
Twin Peaks [Green Stage, 1:00]**
Similar to Hundred Waters’ standalone time slot on Friday, Twin Peaks get 45 minutes of unopposed performance time to kick off Saturday. That’s likely due to The Julie Ruin dropping out some months back due to Kathleen Hanna’s health issues. But that loss is Twin Peaks’ gain, as the local Chicago garage rockers are sure to put on a high energy and fun set that will be a fantastic way to pump you up for the day of music ahead. Their debut album Sunken was more of an EP than anything else, packing in a bunch of songs across only 20 or so minutes, complete with a whole bunch of sloppy, Replacements-style guitar jangle. That’s meant as a compliment. They’ll have another new album called Wild Onion out in less than a month, and they’ll likely be playing a bunch of unheard songs from that as well. If the new stuff is on par or better than what we’ve already gotten from them, look for this band to start breaking big sooner rather than later.
Ka [Red Stage, 1:45]
Circulatory System [Blue Stage, 1:55]**
At last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, Killer Mike made an incredibly strong impression with a set that was a lesson in emotionally invested storytelling. He proclaimed that hip hop wasn’t something that needed to advocate for guns and violence, and could in fact be used for good, positive messages. Ka’s version of hip hop doesn’t really have positive messages, but instead seeks to inspire change in our culture by chronicling the issues on our streets in a very informative way. He’s an excellent lyricist, but it’s the highly emotional way that he says those words that really force you to take them to heart. For all practical purposes, his set could be pretty dramatic and remarkable. Meanwhile, Circulatory System is basically an Elephant 6 band featuring a majority of the members from Olivia Tremor Control. If you only understood about half the words in that last sentence, let me try to clarify a little better. They’re basically a lo-fi indie pop band with particularly creative, often odd or twee leanings. Consider them a companion and warm up to Neutral Milk Hotel, headlining later in the day. It’s entirely possible that even Jeff Mangum himself might pop on stage to contribute to a song or two. The collective’s leader Will Cullen Hart composed their latest album Mosaics Within Mosaics by dusting off some old unreleased recordings and repurposing/re-recording them for the present. It’s a good record, and the band’s first in 5 years. They’re not particularly active, nor do they tour often due to Hart’s health issues, so the rare chance to see them at Pitchfork might be worth your time.
Wild Beasts [Green Stage, 2:30]**
Empress Of [Blue Stage, 2:50]
The last time I saw Wild Beasts perform, it was about three years ago in an outdoor festival setting on a particularly warm and sunny day. Considering that their highly sexualized and highly stylized R&B sound is best experienced in a dark and intimate setting, it felt a little bit out of place. But the band did their best to make the most of the situation, and it turned out to be rather enjoyable overall. I’m expecting them to fare even better this time around, considering their new record Present Tense is their liveliest and most gorgeous to date. They’ve dramatically increased their use of synths and complex percussion, which should be fascinating to see recreated in the live setting. That, and frontman Hayden Thorpe’s vocals remain utterly arresting. If you’re looking to keep your energy high in the early afternoon hours however, your better bet will be going to check out Empress Of (Lorely Rodriguez). She’s only got an EP and a couple of singles to her name so far, but has already made quite the impression with material that ranges from damaged art pop to bubblegum synth pop. Yes, most of her songs are catchy and danceable, and she might be best described as a slightly more mainstream-oriented version of Grimes. The thing is however, since this is still a relatively new project (less than 2 years old) and we haven’t heard a ton of material from it yet, there’s a bit of an uncertainty about how well her performance might go. I’m sure she won’t be bad by any means, but will she likely be a much better performer about a year from now? Probably. Empress Of’s set will be what you make of it, so don’t be afraid to let loose and have some fun!
Cloud Nothings [Red Stage, 3:20]**
Mas Ysa [Blue Stage, 3:45]
When Cloud Nothings performed at the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival, it was in the middle of a tremendous rainstorm. Their set didn’t start that way, but it absolutely finished that way. The most fascinating thing was that as the rain got heavier, the band played harder. You could say they wanted to match the intensity of the weather. They were forced to stop when conditions became too dangerous and electricity was cut to their stage. They still finished the song they were playing though, screaming into the crowd because the speakers weren’t working. That’s passion and dedication, and it made for one of the best musical memories of that year. Hopefully the weather stays dry this year, and they’re able to get a full set in. It’s going to be some high energy, incredibly raw punk rock. Dylan Baldi’s voice still absolutely shreds too. Meanwhile on the small stage, composer Mas Ysa (Thomas Arsenault) will be whipping up his unique blend of emotional, experimental pop. His only released recordings to date were compiled on the Worth EP, which came out this past winter to strong reviews. What that EP primarily showed was that Arsenault was capable of a wide range of styles and tempos, but that his intensely heartfelt vocals took center stage no matter if he was belting out a ballad or soaring on a wave of pure energy. The guy is clearly talented and has great things ahead of him. It’s probably why I also named him as part of my “Class of 2014” project. With a debut full length on the way, it might be interesting to see what he decides to do during his Pitchfork set.
Pusha T [Green Stage, 4:15]**
The Range [Blue Stage, 4:45]
It’s critically acclaimed hip hop vs. critically acclaimed electronica for your four o’clock music choices. The choice is easy if you prefer one over the other, but what if you prefer both or neither? If you’re stuck, here’s my advice: go with the more interesting stage show. In this case, that’s clearly Pusha T. Hip hop can be really exciting to watch, especially when the crowd is into it and chants choruses or key lines from tracks. There’s likely a “hype man” trying to keep up the energy, and guest stars are always a plus too. I’ve heard good things about Pusha T’s live show, and some of the clips on YouTube make it look like an absolute blast. Then you have The Range’s instrumental electronica. James Hinton is the man behind the name, and he does a remarkable job blending a variety of different styles and influences into this very clean-sounding dance music. If you love drum & bass or Disclosure-style R&B, this should be right up your alley. Of course it’s also likely just going to be a guy sitting behind some turntables or a laptop the whole time. If you can ignore what’s happening on stage and simply commit to dancing mindlessly, perhaps The Range will be where you want to be.
tUnE-yArDs [Red Stage, 5:15]**
Kelela [Blue Stage, 5:45]
If you’ve never seen tUnE-yArDs perform live before, you’re missing out. Seriously, I’ve seen Merrill Garbus a handful of times now, and have been blown away during all of them. Her powerful vocals are her biggest selling point, but acclaimed records like w h o k i l l and this year’s Nikki Nack also showcase amazing songwriting and highly experimental song structures that make you want to dance and cheer at the same time. It only gets better witnessing it in person, particularly when Garbus is able to construct many of her songs using looping pedals. Per some reports I’ve read surrounding her touring for this new album, she appears to be doing a little less looping than before, but some is still more exciting to watch than none. It makes me feel a little sorry for Kelela, who has a lot going for her but simply can’t compete in this time slot. If you’re not familiar with Kelela, she’s a fantastic R&B singer who’s been on the rise for the last year or so thanks to her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me. What separates her from similar artists are her experimental leanings. She’s able to add some significant twists to traditional R&B thanks to creatively stimulating compositions that have also caught the attention of some of the dance crowd. She’s already released a new single and a collaboration with Tink this year, but if we’re lucky we might also get a full length album this fall. Perhaps she’ll offer up a little preview at the festival?
Danny Brown [Green Stage, 6:15]**
The Field [Blue Stage, 6:45]
For the second time in a three hour period, you’ve got hip hop vs. electronica. I’ve discussed the pros and cons of each already above (see Pusha T vs. The Range), so really whichever you choose to go see may be dependent on previous material. The dynamic between Danny Brown and The Field feels a lot more intense to me, in no small part because both artists are quite prolific at what they do. On last year’s Old, Danny Brown reached a new peak by making a record that’s equal parts mature and immature, focused and unfocused. He might not be as goofy as he once was, but he’s more confident and weirder than ever before, which is a delight. Of course many people also find Danny Brown to be annoying and his voice to be a bit grating, which is completely understandable. Maybe then you can find comfort in the arms of The Field. Axel Willner has been making highly danceable electronica at a steady pace for the last few years, and his latest effort Cupid’s Head he may have just eclipsed himself. It’s a darker, more intense affair, which represents a great progression from his earlier material. The real question is what version of The Field will be showing up at Union Park on Saturday. In the past, he’s performed with a band, which brings a lot of extra gusto and crowd-pleasing moments to the show. More recently, he’s taken to performing solo, which makes it a more subdued and drone-intensive show. If Willner does have the full band, that almost tips the scales in his favor against Danny Brown. Notice I said almost. Of course if you’re just looking to dance and could care less, The Field will satisfy.
St. Vincent [Red Stage, 7:25]**
FKA twigs [Blue Stage, 7:45]
I love FKA twigs, I really do, but this one is kind of a no brainer. As St. Vincent, we’ve seen Annie Clark grow significantly as an artist these last few years. Her output only seems to be getting better and better as her songs and style become increasingly complex. By now she’s well established as one of the finest guitarists making music today. It’s a genuine pleasure to watch her tear into a solo with incredible intensity. Her latest album is self-titled, and is technically speaking a major label debut. She added some new digital and electronic wrinkles to many of the songs on that record, which somehow managed to feel like a natural progression. I keep thinking the bottom is going to fall out with the next new record, but it hasn’t happened yet, to my surprise and pleasure. So without a doubt, you should watch and enjoy a St. Vincent show if you have the opportunity, even though the crowd will surely be massive. I’m not sure how many people will be excited to see FKA twigs as the sun begins to set on Saturday, but there’s probably no better time for her to be performing. Her slow burn R&B draws you in like a moth to a flame, which is probably why her first two EPs earned her quite a bit of attention. She’ll be putting out a debut album called LP1 this fall, and the first single “Two Weeks” is pretty incredible. Expect her set to feature more new music, just don’t expect it to be high on energy. If you’re feeling a little tired and might like a nice patch of shade to hang out in as the day draws to a close, head over to the Blue Stage and soak in the FKA twigs.
Neutral Milk Hotel [Green Stage, 8:30]**
In 2012, Jeff Mangum emerged from whatever hole he was hiding in and decided to start performing again. He had been absent from the music scene for over a decade, though occasionally popped up here or there at shows for Elephant 6 bands and the like. I saw Mangum perform solo twice in 2012, and both times it was incredibly riveting as he ran through Neutral Milk Hotel’s two album catalogue with only an acoustic guitar in hand. Part of me questioned why he even needed to get the full band back together, but I guess the songs aren’t quite the same unless you’ve got all the musicians behind it playing along with you. So it shall go to close out Saturday at Pitchfork. Expect it to be fun, and expect a sing-along on an absolutely massive scale. I’ve seen Mangum do the intimate acoustic solo thing, now I’m intrigued to hear those same songs blown out and plugged in for the outdoor festival crowd.
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.
Every year around the start of July, it becomes abundantly clear via the calendar that we’ve hit the halfway point. Six out of twelve months have passed, and given that amount of time it feels appropriate to look back briefly on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the music we’ve heard thus far. Rather than approach it in a typical “Best Albums” format (no hints as to the “master list” that will emerge in December), I like to instead examine the first half of the year in terms of “surprising” and “disappointing” albums. The differentiation between the two isn’t as simple as good and bad or black and white. There are records on the Surprising Albums list that won’t show up at year’s end as the “Best of” anything, and by that same token, just because a record winds up on the Disappointing Albums list doesn’t mean it’s destined for the bargain bin. In order to achieve the designation of being “surprising”, a record simply needs to blow my expectations out of the water. You turn it on expecting a total crapfest and wind up with something that at the very least leaves you moderately satisfied. A strange turn of events towards the positive side of the spectrum. Opposing that, those albums designated “disappointing” earn that label by building expectations prior to its release and then failing to meet them. Everyone WANTED to like the fourth Indiana Jones movie of the 3 “Star Wars” prequels, but in the end it was letdown city. You earn a reputation for greatness and then slip up for whatever reason. So as to avoid any sort of confusion or suggestion that any list is ordered in such a way that these albums are ranked, I’ve arranged each list to be alphabetical by artist. If you like, feel free to also click onto the links provided to read my original reviews of the albums on these two lists. Today we’ll tackle my list of “5 Surprising Albums” and tomorrow will top it off with “5 Disappointing Albums”. I hope you have fun and enjoy these lists, and by all means feel free to let me know what some of your most surprising and disappointing albums from the first half of the year are in the comments section.
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Tao of the Dead (Original Review)
Creating an album that many deem to be “perfect” is more of a curse than it is a blessing. Yes, you’ll achieve something not many others can lay claim to, but the weight of that success will likely crush you and ultimately handicap you for the rest of your career. Such is the case with …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, a band whose 2002 album “Source Tags and Codes” remains one of the highlights from the last decade yet continues to be relatively underappreciated in this day and age. Perhaps that’s because it was followed by three albums that pushed really hard to recreate or expand upon the sound that won millions over; all of which failed miserably. Eventually dropped from their major label contract, Trail of Dead continued to push onwards via their own record label, and that along with some fiercely negative reviews caused them to step backwards and take stock of where they were at musically. They pared down to a four piece and with that came a much more stable, stripped down sound that still rocked pretty hard. The high concepts remain though, and they crafted their new album “Tao of the Dead” to be heard as two separate suites, each recorded in a different key. There may be dividers between the tracks, but the record is intended to be heard in a single sitting, and if you take it as such it serves as a reminder that this band is able to do great things when they’re not trying so damn hard. It may have taken them almost 10 years to do it, but it’s starting to seem like the ghost of perfection that has haunted the band is beginning to fade away and the boys might finally be able to reclaim some of the spotlight that was once lost. Buy it from Amazon
MP3: …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Weight of the Sun (Or, the Post-Modern Prometheus)
Cake – Showroom of Compassion (Original Review)
To call Cake “innovative” is to mislabel them. Charming though many of their songs may be, it would appear that longevity is not in their nature. Yet next year they’ll be celebrating their 20th anniversary of being together and allowing John McCrea to constantly sing-speak so many of his lyrics. In that massive amount of time, Cake has only released 6 albums. There was a 7 year gap between their last album “Pressure Chief” and their new one “Showroom of Compassion”, and with the former being such a bland effort on their part, the long wait was probably warranted. They needed the time to remember exactly who they were and why they should continue to make music. Raise your hand if you pretty much forgot that Cake even existed until you heard they had a new record coming out. Spend too much time away, and people will forget about you because there’s so many other musical options available to them. Anyways, “Showroom of Compassion” was like a big welcome back hug from an old friend that you had lost touch with a long time ago. The songs were much stronger than they had been in the last decade, and there were even small signs of sonic progression, with the band incorporating some new instruments and song structures into the fold. On 1996’s “Fashion Nugget”, Cake famously (and ironically) covered Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. With “Showroom of Compassion”, it certainly appears that they will continue to do so for a little while longer. Buy it from Amazon
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (Original Review)
Unlike Cake, Foo Fighers didn’t take a long time away from the spotlight before returning. Still, they did wait four years between their last album “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace” and this new one “Wasting Light”, which was the longest gap in the band’s 16 year history. With all their powerhouse singles though, it was never tough to keep Foo Fighters at the front of your brain, and Dave Grohl’s constant presence in playing with other bands (see: Them Crooked Vultures and Queens of the Stone Age, among others) kept you guessing about where he’d turn up next. But the Foo Fighters themselves had been suffering a serious slump as of the last 10 or so years despite their moderately successful singles output. There was the rather plain “One By One”, the double album electric-acoustic missteps of “In Your Honor”, an attempt to create something as classic as Nirvana’s “Unplugged” session via the live acoustic jaunt “Skin & Bones”, and finally a painful attempt at pandering to the lowest common demoninator courtesy of the pathetic “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace”. In other words, it was really easy to assume “Wasting Light” would continue the downward trend the band has been on these last few records. Instead, they pulled out all the stops: Butch Vig produced the record and worked with Grohl for the first time since Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic guested on one track, and Grohl built an old school recording studio in his garage. The plan worked, and the new record marks an amazing comeback for a band that appeared to be all but lost. When Grohl screams “I never wanna die” on the album’s closing track “Walk”, he sounds like he means it: Foo Fighters haven’t sounded this alive in a long time. Buy it from Amazon
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Original Review)
Polly Jean Harvey has always been a tough nut to crack. Her early career played off the “tortured soul” card, and while she was a little more offbeat than her counterparts like Fiona Apple and Courtney Love in the early 90s, the grungy electric guitars and dark lyrics weren’t entirely uncommon. Her evolution since then has been nothing short of fascinating, and perhaps her oddest move came on 2007’s “White Chalk” in which she put down her guitar in favor of an autoharp and piano. The whole thing had a very Victorian Gothic aire to it, only pushed farther courtesy of some increasingly antiquated outfit choices. Her collaboration with John Parish via “A Man A Woman Walked By” was a small return to normalcy for her, though it’s doubtful that the word “normal” has been used much when describing any of her records. The point being that PJ Harvey is often indefinable by nature, consistent only in how she continues to switch things up and challenge herself. “Let England Shake” is another one of those moments, and this time it’s in the form of a concept record detailing the horrors of war. Harvey’s newly expanded instrumental palette serves her well here, and in a way combines some elements from her harsher electric guitar past and her much more delicate and beautiful varied approach of the more present day. In one sense, each new PJ Harvey record is a surprise, because you’re never sure what to expect as she tends to not repeat herself. What wasn’t expected was how carefully and smartly written and composed this album would be, and how after the last few albums of shots that never fully reached the heights of her past glories, here finally is an album that returns her to that force of nature state. She’s come full circle without ever really returning to where she started. Buy it from Amazon
PJ Harvey – Written On The Forehead
tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l (Original Review)
Hate is a strong word, but I’m by no means hesitant to use it when referencing the first tUnE-yArDs record “BiRd-BrAiNs”. The project of Merrill Garbus, she recorded that debut album via a crappy built-in laptop microphone and mixed it with some freeware program she downloaded. It sounded exactly like that, and was primarily the reason why I couldn’t stand listening to it. I don’t expect full audio fidelity these days, particularly with the rebirth of lo-fi a couple years back, but there comes a point where the bottom of the barrel gets scraped and that was it for me. Still, for those able to look past the sonic issues with “BiRd-BrAiNs”, it was the introduction of a major new talent, a woman with a powerful voice and smart lyrics who used live shows as her true proving ground. For her second album “w h o k i l l”, Garbus actually made it into a legitimate recording studio and had some backing musicians to help her out. Free and clear of any audio quality issues, I felt that revisiting tUnE-yArDs was the wise thing to do. Turns out it was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far this year. The way the songs on “w h o k i l l” are developed and layered with so many instrumental quirks and matched next to that incredible voice is like a sonic punch to the face. It’s innovative and exciting and catchy and pretty much indescribable genre-wise. Most importantly, it’s everything that debut album was not, or rather, it exposes everything that debut album kept hidden courtesy of a shoddy microphone. Buy it from Amazon
MP3: tUnE-yArDs – Bizness
The last time we heard from Merrill Garbus, she was operating at such a DIY level that her music suffered because of it. To call her debut record BiRd-BrAiNs a gem buried underneath a pile of crap is probably pretty accurate. That’s not her fault, she was just using the tools available to her at the time. A computer, a microphone and a ukulele were pretty much all that she needed, and the results tended to sound worse than your average garage band’s demo. Still, there was something about that record that shone through in spite of its severe deficiencies. 4AD even liked it enough to release the record as-is, perhaps partly as a good faith in Garbus’ future, or with the sense that forward-thinking music fans would latch onto it no matter how clean or dirty the audio fidelity might be. Either way, it was a daring thing to record along with a daring thing to legitimately release in spite of all the clipped audio and other surface scratches. That gamble paid off, due less to the record itself and more to how its true nature rose to the surface when performed live. With a legitimate microphone and quality speakers to throw it out there, nothing stood in the way of the songs themselves anymore, and those that saw a tUnE-yArDs show ranted and raved not only about the songs but also about Garbus’ larger-than-life stage presence. Now that she has the backing and resources to assist her, the hope would be that a sophmore album might accurately reflect what everyone saw and heard when it wasn’t filtered through the shoddiest of DIY equipment. Guess what? The new record is titled “w h o k i l l”, and just like that everyone is handing their undivided attention over to Merrill Garbus.
Any legitimate attempts to describe the sound and texture of “w h o k i l l” is pretty much an exercise in futility. With so much more at her disposal, Garbus goes all out and packs the record with many things both expected and unexpected. She’s still a fan of the ukulele, but it’s not exactly her primary instrument anymore. More than anything else, her real instrument is that jaw-dropping voice of hers. You could absolutely tell there was a power behind it on BiRd-BrAiNs, but the full range and scope were trapped under a sea of poor fidelity. Hearing it in fully polished stereo on this new album is a revelation unto itself, the unique qualities oozing out on each track as Garbus almost seems to embody multiple characters depending on the song. The reason why are her low vs. high pitch dynamics, along with the scatological manner in which she rattles off lyrics. By all accounts, Garbus is a woman unhinged, unbeholden to any of your typical singing or songwriting tropes, and flippant to the point of flaunting it. In listening to her sing, you realize that everyone else is showing restraint by comparison. If she wants to growl and chirp, Merrill will growl and chirp. If, in the middle of singing a verse, she wants to go on a brief spoken word aside to get snarky about something, she’ll readily do so. Sure it can come across as crazy and certainly odd, but she does it with such reckless abandon and pure joy you can’t help but be charmed by it. Quirky is the best descriptor of it, and there’s very little being released under that category these days, let alone this loose and engaging.
Equally fun are the ways that Garbus blends widely varied styles and genres to her own benefit. The first, most notable instrument outside of the vocals is the percussion. There’s such a wide variety of beats on “w h o k i l l”, but the primary influence is definitely African in nature. As such, thoughts of a completely off-the-wall Paul Simon or even a strange otherworldly take on Vampire Weekend might pop up in your head. But that doesn’t even begin to take into account the flashes of R&B, reggae, jazz, soul, folk, hip hop, psych-pop, and just general world music that all show up at one point or another on the record. Those are what make this album so difficult to classify. With such a huge scope of sounds and instruments, it’s tempting to think that there’s no way any sort of consistency could develop. What this record maintains is an unerring sense of pop structures, hammering on phrases and choruses enough to stick in your head, even as the melodies that surround them can seem confounding. Additionally, what’s standard for this album is that there is no standard, the madness spread quite liberally and evenly. The unexpected thus becomes the expected, to the point where a normal-sounding song would feel out of place and almost a cop-out. The thrill is in the discovery, how you’re on this completely out of control ride with no idea where it will turn next. Mood-wise, “w h o k i l l” is a success because it never gets too dark or slow. There’s plenty of emotion, ranging everywhere from love and hate to happy and sad, but the upbeat stuff outweighs everything else, and the tempo never lets the depression take hold. The drum and bass arrangement of “Doorstep” is made more jovial with the light click-clack of some light wood on wood taps and overdubbed vocal harmonies that render the oft-repeated lyrics of “policeman shot my baby” ineffective in the outrage or horror we might otherwise feel. That’s the point though. Even the lone ballad on the record, the 6 minute “Woolywollygong”, has a bit of light amidst the generally dark lyrics and pace.
Speaking of lyrics, they’re another always key part of the tUnE-yArDs aesthetic. The highly explicit and blunt lyricisms that Garbus spits out are both impersonal yet immediately relatable. She sings in generalizations but with such specificity that it can sometimes feel like she’s putting your own thoughts out there. Most likely to have the hardest time with this are men, because whether you like it or not this is a feminist record through and through. So when there’s a song about body issues and self-mutilation, there’s not a whole lot of guys that have to deal with the psychological pressure of being a size 0. Underneath a very jazzy and funky melody on “Es-so”, you get self-hate moments like, “Sometimes I’ve got the jungle under my skin/drop at the rhythm, stick a fucking fork in/Bathe it all in a wave of disgust/(sarcastically Valley Girl) ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing'”. Charming, brilliant, and intensely dark all at the same time, while also remaining firmly grounded. In an equally fascinating methodology, “Powa” frankly champions sex and the pleasure that it brings. The intensely memorable chorus of “Your powa/inside/it rocks me like a lullaby” is wonderful unto itself, but where the song really gains meaning is the moment when it turns from being solely about sexual pleasure and again reaches into body image territory. “Mirror, mirror on the wall/can you see my face at all?/My man likes me from behind/Tell the truth, ah never mind/cause you bomb me with life’s humiliations every day” seems to be all self-hate, but in context the words are meant to convey that sex and intense love pull us out of those moments where we loathe our own bodies and instead embrace pure passion and pleasure. Sex is a refuge from not only the world, but from ourselves as well. “w h o k i l l” isn’t all about bodies and the perception of our bodies though. Opening track “My Country” weighs the positive and negatives of America. “Gangsta” deals with talking a tough game but not being able to back it up. And “Riotriot” finds Garbus infatuated with a police officer that shows up to arrest her brother. No matter the topic though, most every song and lyric on this album is thought-provoking and worthy of exploration, something worth doing when you have the time.
Some people are able to see the treasure sitting on the ocean floor while others just cruise on by it without a second thought because they don’t know it’s there. With a debut album like BiRd-BrAiNs, it was easy to move past tUnE-yArDs without a second thought, or even stopping to wonder what anyone could ever see in those abhorredly poor quality recordings. Turns out there was gold buried underneath, and the few keen ears that heard it the first time around can feel so much more justified with “w h o k i l l”. It is the record that will undoubtedly make Merrill Garbus a star. Every single word of praise you’ve heard about this record is justified, and even those that don’t understand it will likely find something nice to say. Innovative, sunny, funky and spine-tingling are all accurate descriptors for your listening experience, which is unlike any other you’ll have in 2011 almost guaranteed. Keep an eye out for a lot of imitators in the next year or two, though arguably none will fully succeed as well as Garbus herself will. The voice and the words are the two hugest sellers here, and both those things you can’t copy. Garbus is one-of-a-kind, and let’s hold out hope she stays that way for a long time to come.