Great Scott; Boston, MA
I’m happy to report that some invisible psychological dishwasher tablet (perhaps it was being an un-photogenically miserable child) got my subconscious sparkling clean of any trace of romance for the 90s. I’ll take its music and culture any day, but when I heard a few of its recent musical converts I recognized its attitude as something I would rather scrape the back of my eyeballs with a needle (thanks Isaac Newton, for the crafty tip) than revisit. The 90s: that decade of rustic, abject boredom, when advertising became coyly subliminal, when there was literally nowhere to hide from the glare of the bullshit. I see the decade rolling back into town again, and I see a re-run of that pursuit, a world where viral marketing techniques hone in on their targets, not with choppers and loudspeakers, but with the drones.
Now dear reader, this avert-sign is not a negative comment on Speedy Ortiz; it’s a token of my genuine goodwill: I want Speedy Ortiz — I want all young people in bands — to be happy. And since to be happy is to avoid being misled by the fashions of Urban Outfitters, it is with concern about the attitude of the scene rather than its music that I approach my young charges’ burgeoning careers.
Speedy Ortiz’s affectionate curation of their roots in this East Coast scene, stretching back to the 90s and before, seems a good start — check out their “Drivin’ on Nine” compilation, which features Heatmiser and Come (and the hilarious outtakes Mission of Burma and Marky Mark). At Allston’s Great Scott I witness a crowd-surfing guitarist, frenetic drumming, a bunch of 22 year olds learning how to mosh, and an intense lock-down of a set during which the music — challenging the easy power-chord distortion combo with off-kilter tempo and the interweaving of Sadie Dupuis’ barbed, colorful lyrics — reveals itself as tightly constructed — nothing like the tame shoebox-sticker definition of ‘college rock’ that all those Pavement comparisons suggest.
With her own hands, Dupuis made the cover of their first album, Major Arcana, into a clever collage out of layers of blue-and-white tissue paper that she picked to resemble willow-pattern pottery. The band’s work ethic is beneath-the-fingernails too; tours revolve around Dupuis’ breaks from teaching and studying at Amherst. Matt Robidoux is a guitar teacher, and Dupuis herself has been playing guitar since she was 13.
That presumably explains their odd assortment of 90s influences, which seem pulled together until you realize the 90s music once was born out of very different scenes has now retired into the old soldier’s paradise of guitar-book selections. Dupuis even once played in an all-female Pavement cover band called Babement. And yet Dupuis, who also has suggested half-jokingly that she might set up an all female tribute band called “She-badoh,” sings the lyrics “You picked a virgin over me” in an accusatory line that sounds painful to utter. Dupuis does a good job of handling the dual responsibility of being a laid back frontwoman and a tortured lyricist carving out a heroic, battle-scarred personality for her band — but this still seems like a tough line to walk. I kept uneasily returning to the “limp” that she mentions in her lyrics, the summer spent on crutches as a kid. And I remembered that back in the day, these stoic heroics came with a price — a stiff (pierced) upper lip. That is the other side of the undoubted power and glory of Speedy Ortiz’s rock-reanimation project. There was an acceptable disconnection with the power of the individual voice when traveling in the dude-ranch of the rock-band (even if it was a female dude-ranch) that bordered on groupthink and seemed to emanate from some wrong-ass conviction that a ‘we’ could only give birth to a stunted version of ‘me’ — unless we all like the same things and nod our heads in unison.
Rightly or wrongly, the title of Speedy’s first full-length, Major Arcana speaks to me of this paradoxical self-expression-with-a-clamp. It might be deliberate, it might not be. But even without getting into a discussion of the tarot reference, the distinction between major secrets and minor secrets is reminiscent of 90s tribalism — a world in which local scenes and bands protected themselves in their purity, became ‘big secrets’ that gave local audiences a sense of purpose, resistance against the danger of selling out.
There’s nothing really wrong with this, unless it breeds insularity and stifles creativity. Minor secrets depend on major secrets, depend on the concept of “in-the-know.” And we have to allow the possibility that perhaps insularity breeds creativity. That petri-dish has to stink of armpit & Allston for fermentation to take place. Speedy Ortiz went a long way toward breeding this genuine excitement at their Great Scott Show, wherein the dragging limp of Dupuis’ thorny lyrics is channeled into the healthy business of outing the beast of songs like “Tiger Trap.” The band have said they strive never just to turn up and play, always to deliver a good show. But still — for me at least — the cryptic antecedents of the underground looms over proceedings; the archness of ‘saying it without saying it,’ a safely detonated protest that packages confession as an incomplete gesture: “Oh-well-whatever-nevermind.”
It’s a very tricky thing to put your finger on the source of your geriatric, knee-jerk unease. I’m sure it doesn’t spell the apocalypse of all culture to see musicians mining this part of our cultural history again. And if Speedy Ortiz are going to volunteer their reassuring presence during this second dark age, I couldn’t ask for a band with more focused concentration, a band who actually cares about stage presence and putting on a good show for their sweaty audiences. Forget about the 90s revival, forget about the ticker-tape search results of mainstream publications delighted to stumble on their coolness, just find out when they will be in town, and be there. “Being there” raw, live, and alive was what the guitar/bass/drum outfits really offered us during the 1990s — not precious secrets.
The Mid; Chicago, IL
I. Fucking. Love. Chromatics. Their recordings should be classified as a barbiturate. It’s always 1 in the morning on a Saturday night when their music slinks into my veins. Johnny Jewel’s synths translate into images of tungsten light on city streets, pretty girls alone in apartments, and a place where the sun doesn’t exist. Aside from maybe The Weeknd, no one else can create night out of sound like Chromatics. In a live setting, Ruth and Johnny spike their aural opiates full of club stimulants. Four-on-the-floor kick and snare, rib-rattle bass, a few extra BPMs sprinkled like coke on a molly line; all the accoutrements necessary for a writhing mass of club kids. The last time I saw Chromatics was an outdoor stage in Austin, and while it was still everything I wanted in a show, Chromatics clearly belong in dark confines wrapped in fog and neon. I won’t lie; I’ve never been much for The Mid since it opened, but this also was the first time seeing an artist there who plays actual instruments instead of dicking around with Ableton. It won me over that night.
Chromatics put in about an hour, covering ground from In the City all the way up to their last single “Cherry.” The brooding and isolation marking tracks like “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” (by the way, definitely heard that on a Nascar commercial while I was watching Sportscenter last week) washed away in the singing from the crowd and fist pumps from some group of dudes in tank tops standing by the front. The festival detritus washing out from Union Park was apparent. You could tell Johnny Jewel was stretching his legs for Glass Candy’s set at Pitchfork; I don’t remember them taking longer than 10 or 15 seconds between songs. When they closed on “Running Up that Hill,” the only thing I wanted, like anytime I listen to that song, was for it not to end. The only thing to do now is wonder when Chromatics feel like coming back to my city, but it’s fine. I’m patient. I can subsist on album sleeves and record grooves. I can live inside minor keys and black outfits for as long as it takes. The day always feels like it’s never going to leave, but when I hear that music, it’s like someone shut off the sun.
The 80-35 Music Festival
Downtown; Des Moines, IA
I got to get my head out of the internet. Anymore festival lineup announcements feel like a reminder to me that having heard of a band is by no means the same as actually hearing a band. I know I spend too much time reading about music or listening to it while working on other things. More and more, I think I’m a one-sound-at-a-time kind of guy. Give me one album to listen to obsessively, or occasionally an entire micro-genre to explore, and I will listen until it has completely dried up. And it’s all SoundCloud embeds and Bandcamp streams: bands like Yeasayer, Menomena, or that collaboration between David Byrne and St. Vincent pass by silently just over my head, and I’m sure they are good, but I’m too obsessed with the crackliest beat “tapes” I can find or the new Animal Collective album and nothing but the new Animal Collective album. I don’t know if I even listened to the new Deerhunter album, Monomania. And I loved all of their previous albums. Why do I do that? In fact, I have definitely spent more time reading about Monomania than I have listening to it. Stupid.
The 80-35 festival is a mass booking of a bunch of Iowa bands playing the free stages surrounding festival main-stagers like Yeasayer, Deerhunter, Wu-Tang Clan, David Byrne with St. Vincent, Wavves, and Umphrey’s McGee, among others. The people at the Des Moines Music Coalition do a marvelous job of booking bands from a variety of different genres and levels of obscurity or fame while maintaining the local feel of the festival. I imagine their demographic is a tough one to please, which is probably why the lineup tends to stray away from the heavy-on-the-indie-music tendency of other festivals. Des Moines is a diverse city in somewhat off-kilter ways that other cities either haven’t figured out or just moved past years ago. And for the 80-35 festival to be successful, it can’t just cater to 20-year-olds or adults with families and jobs at Wells Fargo. It has to draw interest from both ends of that spectrum, which is how a main stage schedule of Umphrey’s McGee followed by Deerhunter followed by Wu-Tang Clan works, as long as the familiar faces of the local bands can serve as alternatives.
Annalibera: Somebody told me that Des Moines band Annalibera was kind of a country band. I don’t think this definition works in the context of that genre so prevalent in the word “country.” When I strip away the years of skipping through the numerous country stations on Iowa radio while growing up and start thinking about the kind of creativity (or bored experimentation) that can only stem from big yards and big skies outside of town, the word country begins to make sense to describe this band. Like being caught in the clear-water current of the river baptism verse of an old church hymnal and nearly drowning because all of the shore-dwellers are too hot and bored to do anything but gaze at their own shoes.
Kitty (Pryde): When the local arts and entertainment publication previewed Kitty’s performance at 80-35 by mentioning the one-million views one of her songs has on YouTube… well, at least I didn’t have any expectations going into this one. Kitty and her press-play DJ dropped a few heavy ones between a couple of tall financial buildings surrounding the Kum & Go (a Midwest gas station chain) free stage. And in between songs, she repeatedly asked the photographers to stop shooting from their low angle or she would “seriously sue them.” Alternatively, she could have worn pants. She eventually wandered off the stage somewhere near what was probably the end of the set anyway, and her DJ just smiled and let the song ride for a while before spacebar-stopping it, closing the laptop, and walking off the stage herself. From the little bit I knew about Kitty going into this one, it seemed like a pretty ideal translation of an internet phenomenon to the live experience.
Yeasayer: “Yeah, I’ve heard one or two songs before. I remember them being OK.” Turns out it was only one song, and it was the one everyone else in Des Moines knew as well. Yeasayer seem the kind of band meant to be playing festivals around the time the sun is starting to set. Real professionals, ya know? I’ve grown too accustomed to the amateur, faceless quality that is the entire internet, so it was kind of nice to see a band flawlessly play their upbeat music to a receptive audience outdoors, where you can occasionally feel a breeze on your skin. I guess they call this “the festival experience.” Never heard of it.
Menomena: “No, I haven’t ever really listened to them before. I kind of just assumed they were like four dudes making some kind of unique rock music using two guitars, a synthesizer, and drums.”
“Nope, that’s Yeasayer, remember? You just saw them.”
I must have read about Menomena at least 30 times before, in various places, and I still don’t know a damn thing about them. I think I ran into about five different people I haven’t seen in six years at this stage, so I still didn’t really even hear any of their songs. I probably missed the boat on this one, and I don’t think it’s coming back for me.
David Byrne & St. Vincent: I just never loved The Talking Heads. I don’t know why. I figured if I didn’t like the hits they still play on the radio every now and then, I probably wouldn’t like their other music, which is a terrible assumption to make about a band. I guess there was just always another radio station, CD, YouTube video. St. Vincent is great, and I am never in the mood to listen to it, because I seem to not like things that are beautiful and good and well-made. Maybe someday when my quality of life isn’t so… poor… it will make more sense.
Their collaboration as a festival headliner was not something I had high hopes for, because I’ve always liked a real punch for a headliner. I was pleasantly surprised with this one, however, and I remember thinking how 80-35 really booked a perfect middle-ground band with this one, perhaps truly capturing that sought-after all-inclusive demographic.
Tires: The majority of the second day was spent on the side stages, watching the wide variety of Des Moines local bands. Tires started the day out for me, because I had to work too late to see Wavves. Tires has been a real curveball for the Des Moines scene, which otherwise boasts few electronic-based bands. They combine the “add-a-synthesizer” tendency of pop-acts-gone-dreamy with fierce psychedelic jams, and are concerned just as much with quality of their set as they are with their always-changing array of MIDI visuals. They are somewhat of a complete package in that regard. I only wish they could have played after the sun went down, rather than four in the afternoon. Maybe next year.
Trouble Lights: Trouble Lights are an anomaly, sporting a punch of straight-forward, Top 40 pop music from a little town called Fairfield, surrounded by Iowa corn on all sides. The entire Sweat Power collective there has been concerned with dance music and dance music alone for the past six or seven years, and Trouble Lights are its biggest breakthrough yet, finding their way onto NPR last year with Maximum Ames full-length Endless Prom. It is becoming common knowledge that if you are attending any Sweat Power show, you are in for an experience because they don’t just play their music, they perform it. The shoulder-shrug attitude of so many musicians has not yet permeated the Fairfield city limits, and I can’t imagine it ever will.
The River Monks: The River Monks might just be Iowa. The five-part vocal harmonies swirl outward like wind across the fields, while the band’s traditional folk instrumentation is given Iowa’s unexpectedly progressive touch, leaving you with something entirely recognizable, yet completely new. I can’t believe it has taken me so long to see this band.
Deerhunter: I was more excited for Deerhunter than any other band. It may be the fact that Bradford Cox, good or bad, is always an interesting figure. They started late because, of course, some cord chose that exact moment to stop working, and when you are dealing with festival electronics, you probably have close to 100 different connections to check when something isn’t working right. But they still floated through every part of their set with a loose flawlessness. And at numerous points between songs, the set was dedicated to a punk teenager in a Black Flag shirt named Timmy. It was an oddly perfect detail coming from Cox, wearing a Cramps shirt and probably giving two shits about this one-off show in Des Moines, IA. Which isn’t to say anything about the band’s attitude, but more about the general direction of their newest album, Monomania, which everyone declared as a throwback to headlong rock & roll figures like Gene Vincent and Bo Diddley. Like “Just 22 and I don’t mind dying” type of carelessness. But they channel it through that old Deerhunter style of huge guitar sounds swelling up over the last half of 10-minute songs and it just works. To perfection. I remember some girl in a car telling me that she thought they were called Dragonslayer, and I told her that they might as well have been.
Wu-Tang Clan: “Iowa, I mean… wait, yeah, Iowa! How we doing tonight?” Oh, Method Man. Wu-Tang Clan in Des Moines, Iowa. Alright. I’ve always liked the group member’s solo albums more, but damn(!), Des Moines was in the mood for the relentless assault of 36 Chambers. By the time they took the stage, my relax-in-a-hurry was wearing off, my 6 AM work day that morning was wearing on, and my brain was still broken from the crushing onslaught of Deerhunter’s set, so I just hung out in the back where I could actually have 2-3 feet of space to myself. I listened to their crushing bass boom outward and decay the way it only can at festivals: from the massive tower of speakers, back and forth between buildings and through thousands of Wu-Tang W’s raised high on all of those drunken Des Moines hands. Maybe I was just too exhausted, but it seemed like the GZA tracks hit harder than nearly everything else but the Cappadonna verses, which carried heavily every time he took center stage.
A friend told me he saw Ghostface Killah play at Des Moines’ metal venue, The House of Bricks, about two years ago, during which Killah allegedly claimed he wouldn’t play Des Moines again unless more people showed up. I guess it took a festival to bring him back.
I’m not sure how much 80-35 has grown since its first year and accompanying headliner The Flaming Lips. I seem to remember just as many people watching that band as Wu-Tang Clan on Saturday night this year. In comparison to the crowds one has to face at Pitchfork, South by Southwest, or any other renowned festival throughout the nation, I can’t help but think that Iowans prefer more intimacy. And maybe next year I’ll actually have familiarity with the lineup beyond a few of the names and a handful of singles. I don’t know. Until then, back to the internet!
Glasslands; Brooklyn, NY
Something unfortunate happened to Alex Zhang Hungtai last week. As he wrote on his blog, there were problems getting his band from Berlin to New York to play a pair of shows (one a late-night outing at Mercury Lounge in Manhattan, the other at Glasslands in Brooklyn) and he found himself unable to play his new double album “properly” in a live setting. Rather than cancelling, he decided to do something risky. With some local friends he performed the new albums in an improvised way that, as he put it, presented the work not in its recorded form, instead endeavoring to “strip it down to its essence and core.” Mercury Lounge was dedicated to exploring the bluesy, aggressive sound of Drifters and Glasslands explored the impressionistic heartbreak of Love Is The Devil. This all sounded too interesting to pass up so I checked out Glasslands last Friday night not knowing what to expect.
I suppose I should be upfront that, now midway through 2013, Drifters/Love Is The Devil is my favorite album of the year. Love in particular is a record I have been playing multiple times a week (or even a day), and still get completely lost in. Together the discs comprise a sprawling journey I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of after more than 100 listens. But what was going to be performed tonight had unpredictability that comes with improvisation, which made me all the more excited.
Hungtai came out shortly after 10 p.m. with Edwin White (Tonstartssbandht, EOLA) and Jakub Alexander (Heathered Pearls), all three opting to sit on the floor of the stage to get closer to their layout of pedals and sequencers. With his partners providing a foundation of gentle loops and drones, Hungtai spent the evening only playing guitar; any vocals (all wordless) were provided by one of his partners. It was strange… though only a few brief moments were recognizably from the record this felt like a genuine performance of Love Is The Devil. It’s a record that feels so much like a window into a specific time and place, and Hungtai’s playing brought me into the same headspace. Still, there was an amazing feeling that came when what I’m sure was guitar line from “Alone At The Danube River” pierced through the mist of sound. As the trio played under the glow of the strange stalactite-esque lights hanging throughout Glasslands, the delicacy and beauty of the performance became more noticeable. Small shifts in sound, or recurring motifs grew in strength, and the rare occasion Hungtai lifted his head brought gravity after lengthy periods of intense stillness.
All this makes me a little frustrated at how awful the audience was. I was in the front row, directly in front of Hungtai and next to a massive speaker, and could hear people talking loudly right behind me. I can only imagine how distracting and discouraging some people talking close to the stage were, and during a large uproar of people in the back near the bar the band abruptly stopped. Hungtai and his one-off band smiled at each other and looked happy with things regardless, thanked audience a little sheepishly, and took off. I could go on more (and did before I deleted the graph) about the disrespect from the audience, and how it’s a problem that I’ve found frequently at shows in Brooklyn for some reason, but it’s not worth the energy. This show was something really special and many people there would have agreed. I’m looking forward to seeing a more traditional Dirty Beaches set the next time he comes around, but I think this is how I’ll always remember the spirit of Love Is The Devil: Hungtai on the floor, head down, and bathed in red light, evoking such fragility and pain with just a guitar.
Eleanor Friedberger / TEEN
Radio Radio; Indianapolis, IN
Walking into Radio Radio from the wet streets and heavy air, it was a shift in perspective and era. It wasn’t quite the shock of the Red Room, lending its decor more to 60s lounge than David Lynch’s manic scarlet, but those oddities of space and time expanded and contracted as a poorly subtitled Jodhaa Akbar played across four big-screen televisions spread behind the bar and above the entrance.
It did not seem to bother TEEN. Led by Teeny Lieberson and her defiant claim (“I do it better than anybody else”), the young foursome showed great maturity in front of a sparse but enthusiastic crowd. Unlike the band’s recorded output, which leans on slick production and a cavalcade of effects, TEEN is a rawer and more productive unit live. Although the vocals were buried and the keyboards up-front, the emotion of the long road of touring (flanked by an apathetic venue happy to keep Bollywood epics at the top of the bill) led to a frenzied, kinetic set. Teeny treated her guitar as an ex-lover, battering and coddling it. A lot of the signature caterwaul of In Limbo gave way to a more natural roar of guitar strings, and a worthy rhythm section that added more live than they have in the studio. The crowd was clearly there for headliner Eleanor Friedberger, but TEEN made their mark and a few new fans. Just another night out on the town.
Much like TEEN, the latest work from Friedberger also speaks louder and rings more true live. Of course, this is the crux of the live performance, but we’ve all been burned one too many times by bands propped up by studio magic. Not so with Friedberger; she may be chained by it. She began with Personal Record opener “I Don’t Want to Bother You,” and her four-piece backing band rendered its punchy pop vibrant and lighthearted. As the band loosened further, even sad ruminations like “Other Boys” became jolly remembrances rather than tears-in-beers ballads. But discretion also was Friedberger’s valor, toning down the jangle of “When I Knew” without losing its classic catchy dynamic. The most commanding note was Friedberger’s presence. She carried herself as a bandleader, proving to be a worthy performer as well, bouncing along to her band’s pep and showing real connection to her words in fond farewells and sad ballads. But don’t tell the two kids who were romantically entwined, they might feel bad they missed such a great performance. Or not.
Largo; Los Angeles, CA
Jon Brion’s long running monthly show at Largo in many ways has become a major pilgrimage/rite of passage for fans of the songwriter/composer. Despite Brion’s widespread success writing more classically minded film music and the fervent cultish love that surrounds his lone solo album, 2001’s Meaningless, the dude rarely promotes himself as a solo performer. As a result, his decadeslong residency at Largo has become a near tourist attraction of sorts. Dedicated lovers of sophisticated pop flock from all over to see Brion take the stage and (as he humbly put it that night) “disappear up his own ass” for a few hours.
Despite having lived in Los Angeles for almost a year, this was my first experience seeing Brion live. My expectations were pretty high considering the mythos surrounding the composer’s Largo gigs. There’s always talk of someone like Fiona Apple showing up or the chance that Brion will tackle some completely outrageous cover (a lot of the show involves audience requests). Luckily, I walked away from the experience feeling extremely satiated even though some of my concert going peers did not.
When Brion took the stage, he mentioned that he hadn’t the slightest notion what he was going to play so he sat down in the midst of an elaborate keyboard setup that consisted of a mellotron, a toy piano, a few synths, a modified upright piano, and several mixers. For the first several minutes of the show, Brion created one of the most beautiful drones I’ve ever heard out of warbly, lush Mellotron chords and a sine-tone-y synth bass. Somehow, this turned into a slow, dreamy cover of the pop standard “Everything Happens to Me,” and all of a sudden my dreams of vaudevillian pop, shoegaze, and drone combining into a singular genre seemed totally tangible. Brion played a few other brief tunes including a fascinating solo piano piece before taking requests. It became apparent this audience contained its share of Brion diehards when the crowd started shouting for tunes from Meaningless and soundtrack one-off’s before yelling for covers. As a result, Brion played a ton of his own pop tunes, which he typically tackled in an extremely stripped-down fashion, as opposed to the repeatedly looped versions he’s been known for in the past.
After acknowledging a few initial requests, it was clear Brion wanted to pursue his own muse. He unveiled a work in progress that has much more in common with the experimental music world and the sampling notions of vaporwave and John Oswald than both the pop and soundtrack work he’s known for. Brion had two projector screens setup and a device that (using some sort of Max/MSP or Jitter patch I’d imagine) would loop, tune, and change the speed/pitch of found video clips in real time. On top of these time stretched/processed videos, Brion began structuring one of the best pieces of fractured pop music I’ve ever heard. It was impossible to tell if it was an old, obscure Brion number, a cover, or (hopefully) a new work, but the way the warped video/audio blended with Brion’s live instrumentation and plaintive vocals hinted at a new world of possibilities for the marriage of true plunderphonics and traditional pop song craft. Brion would go on to employ this new video processing instrument of his on a spirited cover of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and a wonderfully dissonant/cathartic version of his own “Same Thing” that closed the set (on the latter, the processed video became an impossible soloing tool of sorts).
Throughout the evening, Brion frequently joked about it being “one of those days” and his lack of an ability to play “upbeat” material. While the selections from his discography hinted at a possible underlying personal melancholy permeating the set, a sing-along cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and a truly remarkable interpretation of a Les Paul tune more than made up for the perceived imbalance. However, upon leaving the venue I overheard several audience members complaining about the dourness of Brion’s set. I found this shocking. Even Meaningless’ sunniest moments barely mask the pain, self-loathing, and paranoia hidden beneath the songs’ sugary surfaces. One of the mystical things about Brion’s live set was how the stripped-down versions of his songs, along with the additive chaos of his looped pieces, highlighted the emotions underneath in the same way. The combination of the wistful with the instrumental shimmer of Brion’s arrangements is what makes his records so endlessly listenable, but it’s equally thrilling to watch the composer alternately strip it all away and pile it up live. Perhaps, this different vision of Brion’s aesthetic is why his live shows are so legendary. All I know is I’m not going to wait nine months to experience one again.