Festival: Fun Fun Fun Fest 2008
[Waterloo Park; Austin, TX]
I had intended to write a big cultural piece about how Fun Fun Fun Fest is the perfect symptom of a city going down the tubes. Like most of Austin's eerie new cultural ministries, Transmission Entertainment and the Austinist appear aimed at an aspirational audience keen to live "the Austin lifestyle" without any real idea what that entails on a day-to-day. Depending on how idealistic you are, Fun Fun Fun Fest is either exemplary or symptomatic. I've already vomited plenty of bile here, though. What you want are live reviews, so here's a brief recollection of the weekend's highs, lows and plateaus.
Parts and Labor are a great example of the shift in noise-rock aesthetics from subversion to celebration. I haven't interviewed them or anything that would involve work, but I would lay money that they're post-ironic noise, the sound of people who would genuinely rather hear feedback and synth squelches than Andres Segovia or whatever "good music" is supposed to be. My photographer (none of whose work is exhibited in this utterly perfunctory piece) called their sound "arbitrary," but I figure that's the point -- the thread of chaos extends through their entire catalogue; there's scarcely a moment that isn't dominated by unholy racket. Worth the cover at a club near you.
Young Widows' catalogue reminded me a lot of one record above all: Nirvana's debut Bleach. It's all here -- catharsis drumming, fuzzed bass, raging masculinity, and a songwriting ear that's half-punk, half-metal, and mostly crust. To their credit (because I know some of you are shaking your heads), within these specs they are an inventive and frequently original ensemble. Between the bits that sound like "Floyd the Barber," there are plenty of passages that sound like no preceding grunge band. There's even a bit of "post-rock" artiness in the rhythm section's frequent preference for tension over pummel. Actually, I don't know if they really prefer that because I didn't interview them or do anything that would involve work, but I'm happy to act as though I know.
It's easy to overlook Octopus Project's sonic quirks now that so many of them are so ubiquitous, but in spite of that, their set has probably never been as crazy or diverse as it is today. I didn't interview them or do anything that would involve work, but I did stand around chatting with Yvonne about theramins, and I asked her if they had any intention of showing up their many newfound imitators. She told me that, no, they make music without much concern for what the outside world is doing. Perhaps this is for the best. After all, for an ensemble with real chemistry (i.e. something in the musical interplay rather than the "sonic surface"), insularity is often a longevity strategy.
I did interview Annuals, but I didn't write down the questions, and drugs have since eaten all memory of the conversation. I remember their set, though: I was surprised to find out the strings motifs were all keyboard. Annuals' sound is so expansive that had my eyes been shut, I could easily have pictured a flock of chamber musicians with sheet music. It's probably fair to call Annuals a leading indicator of changing aesthetics in the indie-pop world; in David Bowie terms, where the earlier paradigm was Low (weird, fragmented, postmodern), many of today's bands seem like they would rather write "Space Oddity" (lusciously arranged, sincere, a bit precious). This may be a sort of new classicism -- or just a revival of interest in creating the classically beautiful.
Deerhoof are a great live band, and their set was worth standing inside a huge cloud of dust to see. I say this as exactly the kind of incorrigible snob who ought to despise a band as cutesy, or as proggy, or with as many gimmicks, as Deerhoof. Both times I've seen them, though, I've been floored by the chemistry and interplay between the musicians. What more can I say? If you like puppets and complicated song structures, there is probably no better touring act today.
Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon were recommended to me by so many people I spoke to, that there was literally no other option for someone as gullible as I am. Also, his show was at the dance stage, right behind the press tent, so my natural laziness worked to his favor as well. I'm pretty new to hip-hop -- I certainly can't say anything convincing about leading indicators or aesthetics. What I can vouch for is these guys' skill as performers; there are probably few genres quite as demanding in terms of stage presence, and Kool Keith did more than sustain the crowd over the course of his set.
Islands' arrangement-heavy songs didn't quite come across this time, especially since the singer was apparently suffering from all the dust. The band's sound, or rather what bits they share with St. Vincent and Gogol Bordello, is pretty much today's Zeitgeist, so I didn't stick around long. There is probably nothing I can tell you, dear reader, about this kind of music.
Rival Schools strike me as something like a Nickelback for our time: just emo enough for people in skinny jeans, just centrist enough for people scared of "weird" music, enough volume to please frat boys, and enough preening, hair-cream bullshit to please dumb girls. Plus, their set ended with an abysmal cover of "How Soon Is Now?" that the singer forced into an unnatural, bloozy scale, the better to scream it. When indie-rock dies the gagging, hacking death it has coming, Rival Schools will be the sound of the zombie left behind.
If Annuals, Islands, and St. Vincent represent today's truisms, Minus the Bear perfectly encapsulate yesterday's. They deserve credit for tightness, focused attack, and bags of clever songwriting tricks, but can't help sounding a little bit derivative now that the "post-punk" sound has been so thoroughly derived-from. As an XTC fan and the owner of a Nord keyboard, this makes me a tiny bit sad to realize, but it's hard to ignore the present at a festival designed to encapsulate it, and Minus the Bear were definitely repping more for the recent past.
I hate "Punk Rock Girl" and avoided Dead Milkmen. Yes, I know, and I don't care.
Dan Deacon makes music for the sophisticated date rapist of the future. In fact, it's the exact sonic equivalent of some kind of penis-car from a tech expo: sleek, powerful, aesthetic, and futurist in a way that scrupulously avoids the futurism of any previous era (there is more to be written on that absurdity, but not here). His intended audience are the most likely boys and girls of indie-dance, the ones who are long over any lingering irony about house music, but his ideal future audience are the people who will hear later that this kind of music is "sexy" and turn it into a hackneyed shorthand for seduction.
The National's slacker-Dylan act seemed weirdly inappropriate to the main stage, flooded as it was with colored light, like an amateur Half-Life level. I didn't interview their fans because I don't do any work, but my guess is that The National are trading on a back-to-basics appeal: social conscience songs, "songwriterly" songs, put across simply and with a minimum of frilly bullshit (especially for a group as big as theirs). They should be playing someplace intimate and indoors, to an audience who are nursing beers, not glugging Red Bull and Dewar's (both sponsored the festival, of course) and loudly grabbing one anothers' crotches (as were the group beside me, for the entirety).
Being a jerk-ass, I chose Bad Brains over Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. I mean, they're punk legends and shit, rite? Anyway, I was expecting misguided reggae purism and was pleasantly surprised by a set of ass-kicking hardcore rock. They did throw in a bit of reggae, and it was boring as expected (friends, don't underestimate the dedication needed to push envelopes in traditional music forms), but on the whole there was plenty to keep even a marginal hardcore fan thrashing around. I sat down because I don't do work, but hey -- you can imagine I was flailing around up front, if it pleases you so much to do so.
Anyway, I pretty much squandered the festival hanging around the press tent writing capsules and chain-smoking. I didn't use my press badge to talk to famous bands. I didn't even use my press badge to talk to girls. Any one of you could probably have made better use of the time than I did, which is why you're reading this article instead of writing it. Next time, I will stay home and watch video of the festival on YouTube, or maybe just Blue Velvet on repeat. But if you aren't a mentally-disturbed caveman with obvious symptoms of class envy, you'll probably find Fun Fun Fun Fest an exciting, well-curated exposition of current musical trends, at half the price or headache of the bigger Austin City Limits festival.