Julianna Barwick
Judson Memorial Church; New York, NY

[08-20-2013]

The Julianna Barwick album release show at Judson Memorial Church felt like a music recital. The atmosphere was surprisingly adult considering most of the audience was 25 or younger. The church’s interior, which I was told is used for multi-denominational services, is beautiful, painted pale blue with stained-glass windows and a high ceiling. There even were white flower arrangements on the music stands (yes, music stands) in front of the empty chairs on stage. Barwick was the only performer, and it was hard to know what to expect. I’d seen her a few times before, always solo, and she always was fantastic at summoning the almost inhuman beauty of her music into a physical space, whether that was a dive bar or the Guggenheim.

I haven’t heard the new album yet, but from both what I heard at the show and recent interviews with her, it seems Nepenthe is a new direction for Barwick. Her last album, the stunning The Magic Place, had a consistent and winning formula: all of the songs started with a few lone ethereal sighs that built through looping into sonic jacuzzis full of flower petals or kittens or something else unbelievably calming. It was very nice, almost spiritually so (hence the appropriateness of her playing in a church). The new album seems like it takes a somewhat more experimental route. The songs she performed alongside a viola player and guitarist did not swell into climaxes and then sigh into silence, but had unpredictable structures and sometimes surprisingly stark moments of just her keyboard playing or squeaky viola sounds. Whereas on her first album each song was a gorgeous free-standing whole that was slowly illuminated into view and then dimmed out over the course of a few minutes, her new material feels more like a painting you never see in its entirety, different sections of which are lit up and then darkened again.

There is something otherworldly about watching Julianna Barwick perform; unlike many artists that employ vocal loops, there seems to be a distance between what she sings and what eventually is heard, and the melodies don’t add up as you think they will (the only other artist I’ve seen who does this in quite the same way is the under-appreciated Lichens). In the past, Julianna Barwick was always a solitary artist, and she’s spent most of her life making music totally alone, so the slight awkwardness and tentative feel of her collaborations was understandable. Later in the set, she had the girls from Prince Rama and two other women join her for backing vocals, which didn’t add as much as I’d hoped. She came back for an encore of one of her songs off The Magic Place, and her ease made it clear she is still much more comfortable as a solo artist. Then the concert was unceremoniously over, and we all drank the free champagne.

Speedy Ortiz
Great Scott; Boston, MA

[07-06-2013]

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.

Chromatics
The Mid; Chicago, IL

[07-19-2013]

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

[07-05-2013]

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.


Day 1

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.

Day 2

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!

Dirty Beaches
Glasslands; Brooklyn, NY

[06-28-2013]

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

[06-25-2013]

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.

Jon Brion
Largo; Los Angeles, CA

[05-31-2013]

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.

Chance the Rapper
The Metro; Chicago, IL

[05-25-2013]

“Everybody in this room is lucky to be alive right now.” At the end of “Pusha Man,” the writhing, meditative gem at the center of Acid Rap with a heart as broken as Son House probing the ‘Murder Season’ phenomenon of Chicago summer, Chance the Rapper left the silent, brimming crowd at The Metro with this memento mori kids on the South Side shoulder every day like a backpack. I came into this show and watched from the balcony expecting a juke bacchanal celebrating the ascension of the city’s next son, which happened, but I didn’t expect the substance-addled fervor of a sold-out Saturday night to stare me in the face with an old man’s lucidity and tell me for some, life is a luxury. I wanted to cry.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to The Metro in the past 10 years, but on Chance The Rapper’s sold-out debutante weekend, it was different. An electric gravity poured out of the eyes and open mouths of the teenage legions swarming every square inch and seeped into the banisters and columns lining the concert hall. The effect reminded me of a dimmed United Center waiting for Rose to stride out of the tunnel. When Chance strode on stage to the war call of a chant of his name, it was hard to tell the difference.

Since Acid Rap dropped a little shy of a month ago from the date of the show, Chance’s unhinged, feral expression splayed over the album art has darted into the collective consciousness of the music scene in Chicago and infected hype into media outlets and fans alike with the viciousness of a viral outbreak. He’s really something of an anomaly in recent Chicago rap: intense but not nihilistic like Chief Keef, inventive but more probing than The Cool Kids (Mikey Rocks, aka Sir Michael Rocks, opened up the show), and referential to Chicago music tradition but not self-absorbed like Hollywood Holt and Murder Club (whatever happened to him?). The look on his face on the album cover and in concert says not even he knows what to do with himself, and it’s that comportment that earned him this sold-out weekend.

The show was sweat, sweat, sweat, and I wasn’t even in the pit. The lotus haze-party atmosphere sidled through the writhing mass of bodies in the pit to songs like “Good Ass Intro” and “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” The amassed kinetic energy of hundreds of slippery kids juking in one swaying lake of bodies created 100 percent humidity. From my vantage the floor played out like a party down I Spy: spotting a 16-year-old fainting, figuring out which bobbing snapback produced the latest in a mobius strip of weed clouds, seeing a boyfran go for full grope on his ladyfran (some to success; others not so much). But the entire time no one was distracted; it was all on Chance.

At his most intense, I can’t think of any other comparison for him on stage than Hamlet in a soliloquy. He’s got heavy shit on his mind, and he raps like he wants you to hold onto it. It’s really in his eyes; when he’s in the middle of strangling a verse he looks like he’s conjured an invisible straw man to fill with his knives and daggers. And it stands to reason; his songs have a social element to them, with the gurgling vitriol of Chief Keef, and the honed lyricism of Common.

Even while I’m writing this and wrapping up, I’m still jarred by “Pusha Man.” The murder epidemic of the South Side has simmered on the periphery of national attention for years, and still a large bulk of the American public are unaware it common for a student there to develop PTSD or know at least one person (if they’re lucky just one) who has died as a direct result of gun violence. Since the era of Benji Wilson loose guns and unbridled violence have become subject matter for generations of Chicago rappers, and Chance is the latest to grapple with these monsters. He’s confident, he’s angry, and he wants to know where the fuck Matt Lauer is.

Varmakon (Vår + Pharmakon)
The Rink; Brooklyn, NY

[05-25-2013]

Last Saturday, at a creepy loft in Greenpoint, Pitchfork and the Brooklyn record label Sacred Bones presented an experiment in buzzband chemistry. The new-wave Iceage offshoot Vår performed alongside noise artist Pharmakon, with a varied degree of success.

It made sense for the artists to perform together. Both revel in near-Satanic darkness and are clearly friends — Margaret Chardiet, who is Pharmakon, has a spoken-word piece on one track of the Vår record. Vår trade in Joy Division-esque dark pop music, which today, when you can literally buy an upside-down cross shirt for $10 at Forever21, is hard to imagine offending or disturbing anyone. Pharmakon, on the other hand, has stated her mission to make her audience uncomfortable, and watching her live, the strength of this desire is such that it leaves the crowd reeling from the pure, bubbling rage.

The artists had requested to perform without a stage, which I’m sure was great for the 15 people standing in front, but it kind of sucked for everyone else. I spend the majority of the show trying to find an angle from which I could see anything. The performance happened round robin-style, with Vår opening with a quiet and somewhat weak song (the sound made it difficult to hear any vocals that weren’t screamed). Then Chardiet began to build up to her terrifying single “Ache,” and the feeling in the room changed from hip hangout to horror movie — her performance felt like a sign from God (or whoever) that this fifth-floor loft was about to open up and swallow Brooklyn’s elite goths into hell. One of the most successful moments of the show was at the end of another Pharmakon track when Vår’s drums came in — I would totally go see an orchestral Pharmakon show. Her contributions to their songs, however, felt less useful.

Vår’s performance, which included their lead singer repeatedly submerging his head into a bucket of muddy water, felt mostly like I was watching the most metal cologne ad of all time. While Chardiet is so possessed by her darkness, it seems as if it were a demon that’s lived inside her all her life, Vår’s show was… a show. They screamed very convincingly, but the whole thing reminded me a lot of wandering around the popular immersive theater experience Sleep No More — a supposed 1920s noir hotel filled with beautiful actors enacting deranged Macbeth-inspired scenes, but which in fact is a former club in Chelsea that big-deal corporations now use to take out their clients. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I love Sleep No More, and I understand why people enjoy Vår. But when juxtaposed with an artist who has committed her life to expressing her serious, gaping angst, it’s hard for a band like Vår’s brand of darkness to seem like anything more than a passing ghost.

Gravetemple / Russell Haswell
Café Oto; London, England

[04-13-2013]

This wasn’t one of those experiments where someone senior was asked to respond to a new piece of music for questionable comedy value. But if it was, this definitely would have been a choice opportunity. After I moved back to London last year, my dad and I made a habit of going to the occasional gig together — it’s a chance for me to catch up on some of the acts he listened to in his youth, and for him to become acquainted with musicians new to the scene, relatively speaking. In fact, it was my folks’ vinyl collection that got me hooked on music in the to begin with — I recall being utterly enthralled when I was a kid, listening to Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Grace Jones records as they spun on our haggard turntable.

Gravetemple was probably not the most sensible concert to have chosen for our most recent outing. But having said that, the generation gap may have proved almost irrelevant as Attila is closer to my old man’s age than he is my own. Where the curiosity lies is in the music the former is responsible for. The supergroup got together in 2006, and consists of metal-drone master craftsman Stephen O’Malley, prolific multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, and the former Mayhem vocalist himself, who also contributed to a number of sunn 0))) offerings. Earlier this year, the collective’s 2008 LP Ambient/Ruin got a re-release on O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint, hence this triumphant reformation and mini-tour of Europe.

The gig was sold out, and as we stood outside in the evening rain, taking in the deafening sound check, we made bets on whether Café Oto would be able to maintain its license after the show. Additional speakers had been stacked up so high behind the band that the interior was almost unrecognizable. So loud was the group’s collective output that the windows rattled uncontrollably in their panes. We spied one of the ladies at the bar chalking up a sign underneath the cocktail menu: EARPLUGS. 50P.

Once the sound check came to a bludgeoning close, the doors were opened and people filled the place. Russell Haswell unveiled an arsenal of equipment at his makeshift stage — there is no elevated platform, so those at the very front were only a couple of feet away from the stacks of speakers that surrounded them. As intrigued as I was to find out what my father thought of Gravetemple, I also wanted to discover what he made of Haswell, who is renowned for exemplifying the very harshest of live noise. Whereas O’Malley and co. rely on long-form feedback, resonance and distortion set-pieces to create walls of pandemonium, Haswell builds, crumples, and shifts a range of frequencies in forcing out his unpredictably savage display.

Dad took the whole thing in stride; pint of Helle Weisse in hand, looking on curiously as Haswell approached his machines. The Coventry artist started by building a gloomy atmosphere with white noise and church bells. While the volume was felt simmering with crackle, it wasn’t fully tested until a few minutes into the set — the audience could taste the potential, and waited patiently for it to be unleashed.

A sonic magma of fierce mechanical gush hurtled out of the speakers, accompanied by blistering snaps, ruptured snares, and a screaming pulse. Each variation was jack-hammered through a coarse of frequency shifts and sporadic temp thrusts — the impact was incredible. It was one of the most fascinating noise performances I have witnessed, and my dad seemed to agree. Though he had never seen anything quite like it before, the set reminded him of the festivals he had been to in his teens; Stonehenge, Knebworth, etc. Essentially this was nothing new, but the experience had been refined and intensified, making it more powerful and captivating — Haswell was indeed spectacular.

By the time Gravetemple took to their positions, we were as close as we could get to the center in the now packed-out café. Attilah began his vocal gymnastics and for minutes at a time, the high pitched ringing of O’Malley’s guitar raced through Ambarchi’s gear. It felt like the sound was dialing directly into my nervous system and pinning me to the spot; there was nowhere to move, no means of escape. People were standing in a kind of transfixed cramp — proof that nobody had bothered with the earplugs — until the strings collided once again to create a shuddering drop; Atillah hummed and murmured and moaned at his workstation, apparently hypnotized by the aural forcefield his group were creating. The set was spellbinding; more of an addition to the Ambient/Ruin material than a reenactment of it, though the shifts in pace, mood, and style slowly emerged over the evening’s course.

So it seems the exploration of volume tolerance isn’t so fresh after all — it was very much a part of the gigs my dad had gone to as a youngster. But technology, low ceilings, and a seeming desire to break a record for noise complaints had pushed those boundaries further than either of us had ever experienced. This was the first of a two-day residency at Oto. “Would you go and see them again?” I asked as we walked back through the soaked streets. “Without a doubt, son,” was all I could make out through the tinnitus and aftershock.