Archive for August, 2009

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Kurt Vile – God Is Saying This to You…

August 23, 2009

I’m going to be honest, 2009. You’re really disappointing me. We’re almost a full eight months into the year, and musically this is one one of the most disappointing years I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s just last year’s utter blowout that couldn’t help but put this year to shame. Even since my end of the year Best of 2008 list was published, I keep on finding awesome albums from 2008. So maybe this year just seems like it sucks in comparison. It’s not like there haven’t been any good albums this year: Animal Collective, Neko Case, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Phoenix and Dinosaur Jr. have all released albums that I have liked a lot, and there are a smattering of other albums that I’ve also enjoyed well enough (Tiny Vipers, Clark, and Matt & Kim have had some of the more low key releases that I’m fond of). But the truth is that only one album this year has really wowed me, and as far as I’m concerned it is the only great album of 2009 thus far that I’ve found. By all means, prove me wrong! Give me some recommendations here! I’d be more than willing to give this album some company, but for now I want to give said album some recognition.

Kurt Vile - God Is Saying This to You...

Kurt Vile - God Is Saying This to You...

The truth with folk singer Kurt Vile is self evident; he is a gifted songwriter, and although Constant Hitmaker might be more of a sensible, song based release, there is something special and unique about God Is Saying This To You, a limited release album packaged with the vinyl reissue of Hitmaker. For starters, it is more toned down and acoustic compared to Hitmaker, making it much more personal and understated. Of the twelve songs here, six are fully formed folk songs and they are all excellent, and among the best and most emotionally affecting songs of the year. Of the remaining six, one (“White Riffs”) is a tiny guitar interlude and the other five are short retro electronic experiments. I can anticipate the complaint that the album would seem like only half of a fully formed folk album, the other half useless ham. But those six songs are just too interesting to ignore. They feel like the norm, some strange everyday events, and also further accentuate the folk songs. When Vile sings on the folk songs, he makes every word count, and his lyrics are just as haunting and gripping as his guitar work, mostly because they, like the interludes, feel like regular events with powerful gravity. Often times Vile leaves large instrumental gaps in his pieces, and when he finally speaks subtle words about social anxiety or simple pleasures, they are completely memorable. I wish I could cite them here but I would hate to ruin them for a first listener. And the first time I listened to this, it ended in what felt like just a matter of minutes. Granted, it is a short album, but it strikes a very strange, personal chord. Don’t be surprised if you come back begging for more like I did. I hope Vile’s excellence really is as reliable as it seems. He’s just signed to Matador, and his new album, Childish Prodigy, is due out in October, so keep an ear open. Vile has a two album winning streak going and he’s at a full sprint, so let’s see if he can keep it going.

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Lollapalooza 2009: Sunday

August 21, 2009

On August 9th, I attended yet another music festival, but only for a single day. I didn’t have the cash to attend all three days of Lollapalooza 2009, not to mention the lineup didn’t really excite me this year, but I’d say I got my money’s worth on the one day I did attend. I had so much fun last year that I couldn’t pass up at least one day this time, and although the day was money well spent, it was more of an interesting exploration, as opposed to last years unaddulterated fun.

We started the day in the beautiful/burning hot Grant Park off with Bat for Lashes on the Vitaminwater stage. The singer songwriter Natasha Khan drew a big crowd, and when she got on stage and started playing, her music oddly enough fit the mood of the day. Her style of fairy-tale rock seems out of place in what is usually considered an “alternative rock festival,” but is that really what Lollapalooza is anymore? The dramatic hooks, diverse instrumentation and arcane lyrics had life breathed into them from the hugeness of the stage and the wind that blew over the band and the giant curtains. Also particularly strong was the percussion, which often times took on a sun-baked electronic flair. Khan herself is as attractive of a personality as she is a person. She apologized for the heat and seemed to be only visually suffering from it as much as we were. She stated her worry that dry-mouth might hinder her vocal performance but throughout the show, her vocals were sweeping and impressive.

So why was I bored with the show? My immediate thought on this is probably the most meaningful; the songs sounded exactly like the album versions. Which in some ways is fine, because Khan’s albums are pretty damn good. But I’m reminded of many other festival experiences I have had this year, especially the Pitchfork Music Festival, that had me thinking about what I want in a show. I want my live music to be something that truly benefits me seeing the artist live over just sitting at home listening to an album, and that does not include a pretty face. Khan and her band did bring the goods more than once, enough to make the show worth it. “You might want to dance along to this one,” said Khan before firing into an uptempo rendition of “Sleep Alone” from her latest album Two Suns. Bat for Lashes really benefits when the band try to get their audience dancing. Even on the more hushed numbers, the big beats do their work. But clearly not enough for me, admittedly a head-nodder and an easily bored show-hopper. I’m glad I saw Bat for Lashes, but I didn’t need to see them for more than a half hour.

So we got the Citi Bank stage early enough to see most of Cage the Elephant‘s set, who were just awful. Frontman Matt Shultz was stoned beyond the level that a frontman should be, and I can’t tell if it hindered his performance or if his vocals really are that bad without any help. The band’s southern rock songwriting and delivery is almost comically bland and standard, but the audience, now mostly consisting of bros, just ate it up. It is now that I recognize that the crowd of Lollapalooza has drastically changed. Of course, shirtless jocks were just as big a part of Rage Against the Machine last year, but here they seem to have more attitude and majority.

But they all cleared out after that show, leaving a scant few to wait for the eclectic electronic/noise/world music band Gang Gang Dance to start. Most of these people were probably actually waiting for Passion Pit or Deerhunter instead, and I think I was the only one in the early audience to wave my hand when someone else asked “Does anyone else here actually listen to Gang Gang Dance?” This might as well have been the show I was most excited for on this day, mostly because I love this band and am always jumping at opportunities to see world music influenced shows these days (I am the one who has seen Yeasayer three times in the past year).

So I loved this set despite it’s shortcomings, and there were a few. The sound levels seemed a bit off, and Liz Bougatsos’ wonderful vocals weren’t given enough volume. I can’t tell if this was actually because something was wrong, or because we were in the second row, or because it was just one of the loudest shows I’ve ever heard. The only other show I can think of being worthy of comparison would be Animal Collective’s set at the Pitchfork Festival last year. At that show, the sound of the band was sometimes so convoluted and loud that I often couldn’t hear what I was hearing. This simultaneously frustrating and awesome occurrence happened here at Gang Gang Dance a few times, but even though this was clearly the louder and more experimental show, I found that the sound generally had more clarity and punch to it than Animal Collective did, even though the bands might have uncannily similar descriptions in the Lollapalooza handbook.

But fuck all the descriptions and preconceived notions; you can’t really prepare yourself for a Gang Gang Dance show. It’s just something different than most anything you’ve seen before. The band’s songwriting only adheres to the notion that songs should include guitars and drums, but for a lot of the show, three out of four band members were hitting away at drums and samplers and the guitar was used more as a slow burning electronic instrument, making this a very percussively strong show. Some of the band’s more accessible songs came from last year’s excellent Saint Dymphna, such as the high as the sun “Vacuum” and the down-the-rabbit-hole dance burner “House Jam.” The electronic production from Brian DeGraw simply rocked in a way that I haven’t seen an electronic artist do so before, and his noise passages were really fun and fascinating to listen to. In fact, when I compare them again to fellow psychedelic band Animal Collective (who by all accounts played a very mediocre set on Saturday), Gang Gang Dance seemed to be more complex and experimental and yet still so much more immediate and likable. Also, they might have had the most entertaining set of roadies I have seen in a while; Can someone get me an “OH SHIT, GANG GANG” shirt, please?

I didn’t know exactly what to expect for Passion Pit because I didn’t know their music. By the time they started, I was reminded of what kind of shows I don’t like. The crowd was, for the first hundred feet or so, a gigantic, sweaty, pulsing mosh pit. I decided pretty early that I was sick of having man titties rubbed up against me and barely being able to stand, so I worked my way back in the crowd, got some refreshments, and watched from far away. Which I was just fine with, because I don’t know or care enough about Passion Pit’s music enough to endure the newly awakened Bro-a-Palooza. However, this band amassed an incredibly large crowd. Even from hundreds of feet away, the area was still packed, and the crowd was going fucking nuts. And these guys do have a certain minor gravity. Even I found myself tapping my foot from far away.

Easy, unprofessional bro music? Yes indeed, but when I found myself wrapped up in my elitist thoughts – this is just stupid party music – I had to stop and remind myself that these guys drew a massive, enthusiastic crowd. People love this band, and their music is, to these fans, unstoppable. Towards the latter half of the show, a balding man named Josh greeted me and asked me if that was a girl singing on stage. I said that amazingly it was a guy, and he seemed stunned. He kept asking me, “that’s really a guy?” He said he couldn’t get to the festival any earlier than just recently, if I recall correctly because he couldn’t get off of work, and that he was thinking of seeing Vampire Weekend and The Killers. He proclaimed that he really liked what he was hearing at this stage and proceed to walk his way into the inner crowd. I was left just as bewildered as he was seconds ago. Who’s the teenager here?

When Deerhunter hit the stage next, Bradford Cox seemed frustrated and unhappy. It might be enough that his band had to go up against festival juggernauts Lou Reed and Snoop Dogg, and it looked like he was having pedal issues, but he seemed too distressed too early for things like that. During sound check he seemed quite grumpy and kept to himself, though when he did give the audience his attention he charmingly smiled, waved, and greeted. What we found later during the show was that, according to Cox, he has the H1N1 virus and recently got a shot of B-12. Regardless of whether it was the virus or the meds, he was clearly tripping for the vast majority of the show, and after the show got off the ground, Cox’s anxiety turned to ecstasy. He noted that to him the audience looked like a massive ocean of faceless flesh, recounted a hilarious story of his hallucinations that morning in a Holiday Inn that featured a Mayan themed water park, and threatened to play Snoop Dogg and Velvet Underground songs. And they would have fucking done it too; they had three fourths of the band playing “What Goes On” before Cox asked where his drummer was, to which Moses Archuleta bitched that he didn’t know the drum part (and apparently just couldn’t improvise something. Come on man, Velvet Underground percussion is simple shit, and it’s not like Deerhunter’s is that much more complex.) But through all of this, Cox looked not only slightly terrified but also completely giddy. By the end of the show, he looked ready to pass out but was all smiles.

With that said, all of the banter was just as epic as the music, which went on shockingly unhindered by Bradford Cox’s state of mind. Cox is an electrifying stage presence, and he never fails to bring a smile to the audience, even when he is rambling at what may at first seem like a little too long. But Deerhunter’s set was long and strong enough to live up to the almost legendary hype that has surrounded the band since they hit it big with Cryptograms in 2007 and has accompanied them up through their current tour with Dan Deacon and No Age. The band’s pieces are usually long and reverb-laden, and even their earlier, tougher material sounds lush with Cox and second guitarist Lockett Pundt’s work, which ranges from beautiful atmospherics to tough riffing. The drums and bass are often the driving power behind the songs, as simple as their parts can be. Pieces can range almost to ten minutes of squealing feedback and vocals repeated like mantra, and the rhythm section is slow and brooding. All of those elements sound like they should build up to some terrifying GY!BE type shit, but Deerhunter are actually a really beautiful sounding band, and the songs from the albums sound even more uplifting and brilliant live as on record. Although Cox may have playfully played the band down, it’s not hard to see Deerhunter pulling in as big of a crowd as his competition on Saturday within a couple more years.

To me, it was a no brainer choosing between Deerhunter, Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed. I knew in my head that, considering my lack of familiarity with Lou Reed’s solo work and my love for Deerhunter, there would be no reason for me to see Reed other than to be able to say I saw him. But there was still a tinge of disappointment in my heart knowing I’d miss a punk rock ‘n roll legend that might not be around that much longer, despite my expectations that his show might be a little slow. So I was delighted to find that by the time Deerhunter ended and I was walking over to the Budweiser stage to wait for Jane’s Addiction. Granted, I only ended up hearing one song from Lou Reed and his band, but if you’re only going to see Lou Reed perform one song, “Walk on the Wild Side” is pretty ideal. And Reed sounded a lot like I thought he would. Kinda old, kinda slow, kinda fried, kinda awesome. I’m glad I went for the superlative set and didn’t settle for a “kinda” show, but I’m happy that I got to see him play one good song. It’ll be one to tell the grandkids.

But that story will probably be a side note to my accounts of Jane’s Addiction. Granted, seeing Jane’s Addiction headline Lollapalooza seems legendary right off the bat, and I had to give credit to Perry Farrell, a man who has poured his life into fourteen years of Lollapalooza over the past two decades, as well as the rest of Jane’s Addiction, who headlined the first Lollapalooza in 1991. This was Jane’s Addiction’s moment to shine, with their original lineup on the main stage of one of the most renowned music festivals in the world, which they themselves founded.

But I’ll be damned if they didn’t earn it right there and then. Jane’s Addiction really rocked that stage. This show is just about the greatest major stadium show I’ve ever seen, even standing strong against headliners last year like Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails. Jane’s Addiction delivered the balls out hard rock goods that was exactly what this year needed with it’s otherwise mostly tame lineup. Perry Farrell is still a magnetic frontman who can hype up an audience like no other, Dave Navarro is an incredible and fun guitarist, Eric Avery rumbles the ground with his basslines and Steve Perkin’s is a behemoth on drums (despite the fact that his elbow was fucked up and two specialists said that he shouldn’t play the show). Everything about the delivery here was spot on. What shocked me the most was that the guys don’t seem like they are half as old as they actually are. No one in the band looks or acts older than thirty five. Perry Farrell, originally dressed in sequins pants and vest, still looks like he did twenty years ago, chizzled with nary a wrinkle at a ripe fifty years old. Dave Navarro is even more cut and still seems to not own a shirt, and he’s probably better off. These guys look and sound probably even better than they did at Lollapalooza ’91, judging from the footage of that performance.

Musically they were spot on, tearing through a set that included classics from the band’s original incarnation in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Songs like “Mountain Song,” “Oceanside,” “Whores” and “Three Days” were given great live treatment that only compounds the energy of the originals threefold, and crowd favorites “Been Caught Stealin'” and “Stop!” got a big crowd response. There was a sort of spectacle to the delivery, yes. Giant paper waves came out of the pit for “Oceanside,” streamers flew over the audience at the conclusion of “Stop,” voluptuous women danced on elevated platforms, and Farrell invited Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry to join the band for the final performance of “Jane Says.” The general complaint seems to be that these tricks are hammy and overblown, but to me they seem relatively tame. Maybe it’s just because I’ve seen the Flaming Lips twice this year, or maybe it’s because I’m comparing this festival show to the band’s recent club shows that featured fire-breathing strippers. In my opinion, Jane’s Addiction like their audience to have fun just as much as they do, and there is nothing wrong with that. It seems like one of alternative rock’s greatest bands is still under-appreciated.

Which isn’t to say that the band didn’t attract a big crowd; the entire weekend was a complete sellout, like last year, and tens of thousands watched Jane’s Addiction tear it up. But the crowd, mostly consisting of middle aged rockers and young classicists, was awkwardly quiet at encore time and wasn’t giving the band nearly the feedback I would have expected. An especially unnerving moment came early on in the set, when Farrell triumphantly yelled “What the fuck is this!? 80,000 punk rockers?? What the FUCK is this!?” I must have been beaming in affection at Farrell’s words, but then it occurred to me that his calculation couldn’t have been correct.

Lollapalooza was founded in 1991 as being a showcase for what was called then “alternative rock.” Lineup selection has usually reflected this, and when it hasn’t, the choices have still ended up being pretty awesome (Kanye West and Daft Punk come to mind). However, I’m still one of those fans of the music which Lollapalooza was born on, although I’m still not sure that I even know what “alternative rock” means. Looking back at previous years’ lineups, I pretty much salivate over the bands that played from 1991 to 1995, when I was a toddler and couldn’t have possibly attended the festival. I saw a guy in the crowd for, interestingly enough, Passion Pit, who had a Lollapalooza 1993 shirt on. Among the bands that played in ’93 were Alice in Chains, Primus, Dinosaur Jr., Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Sebadoh and Mercury Rev. It occurred to me that I would have killed to have been ten years older in ’93. I complimented the guy, and he said that he brings out the shirt about once every five years.

I’ll level; I feel old. I’m nineteen years old and I feel like I’m one of the few people I know that would consider themselves a fan of hard rock. Some of the same bands that were on the guys shirt have even played Lollapalooza since it’s 2005 revival. Hell, Jane’s Addiction, the original spirit of the festival, headlined this year and I loved every overblown, commercialized minute of it. And it was commercialized, because there is still a market for Jane’s Addiction. If there wasn’t, they wouldn’t have played. Lollapalooza, and the entire festival circuit, is now part of the music business. Even though I scoffed at the fact that The Killers were chosen to headline this year, I had no right to scoff at their crowd, which I’m sure was 50,000 strong. Hell, the festival completely sold out again this year, so someone is doing their job right.

In a nutshell, at Jane’s Addiction I felt like an old spirit in a new environment. Just as I’m sure that rock music will never completely leave festivals like Lollapalooza, I’m not completely a classicist; I had just as much fun at Deerhunter and Gang Gang Dance as I did at Jane’s Addiction, and the word “alternative” doesn’t mean anything more to me than the word “indie” does. But it’s obvious and sensible that the nature of this festival is changing, and I find myself watching this happen, a little uncomfortable. But I doubt you’ll see me steering away. I’ll probably have just as much confused fun next year.

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Ponyo

August 17, 2009

PonyoPoster

Often times, films are marketed as “family movies,” and most times these films put the parents to sleep and only keep the kids marginally entertained. Ponyo, the latest film from Studio Ghibli director and legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, couldn’t have had everyone’s eyes more glued to the movie screen. Granted, my family consists of Studio Ghibli fans, and maybe it was our adoration of Hayao Miyazaki’s previous work that kept our eyes as wide as the film’s characters throughout our movie experience. But no one in my family that attended Ponyo was under nineteen. The children in the theater, however, were the real judges. And this is reasonable; children are the target audience here. As important as our “oo”s and “ah”s were, their interjections were key, ranging from laughs, sounds of surprise, questions, and if it could make a sound, their amazed silence. I’ll bet close to the same emotions were running through my head as well. Miyazaki’s films often have a way of making a child out of everyone; everything you see is new.

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Which is not to say that every Miyazaki film is for children. 1997’s Princess Mononoke, rated PG-13, was intense even when I was thirteen (I feel sorry for all the parents who thought they were bringing their kids to another Disney Princess movie). 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle was often times violent and melancholy, and probably went over most kids’ heads. Even Miyazaki’s commercial breakout and one of the best children’s films ever made, the 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro, was sometimes a drama about difficult emotions and problems associated with growing up. Ponyo is a bonafide children’s movie, although it may contain some moments that have bigger consequences that children may only understand the basic ideas of (a complexity of relationships, unconditional acceptance of others and a subtle environmentalism among them; and really, who doesn’t like their kids to learn from a movie?). The film, about a small boy named Sosuke and his newly found pet goldfish Ponyo, plays out and even looks like a children’s book, with colorful landscapes and objects that explode with pastel and crayola-esque animation. The story, like that of many children’s books, is basic and fundamental, and yet completely new; I never had any idea what would happen next, and was delighted by each turn of events.

Sosuke (voiced by the youngest, least well known Jonas brother Frankie Jonas) lives in a pretty normal world, in a house on a green cliff by the sea with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey) and sometimes his father Koichi (Matt  Damon), who is a sailor and spends most of his days out at sea (to the great distress of Lisa). Sosuke spends his days at school while Lisa works at the retirement home next door, which is inhabited by perhaps the most charming set of old ladies in the history of old ladies. Once Sosuke finds and subsequently loses the little human-faced goldfish Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus, yet another teen pop star’s younger sibling), his world floods with excitement. It turns out that Ponyo is the daughter of an undersea wizard-type figure named Fujimoto, and thus Ponyo isn’t exactly a normal goldfish. Her character is, like Miyazaki’s other great characters, electrifying and vibrant and can’t help but leave the secondary characters in the dust, as compelling and real as they are. When Ponyo licks a drop of blood off of a cut on Sosuke’s finger, everything changes: Ponyo begins to transform into a human girl, the sea rages with Fujimoto’s search for his daughter and the moon draws closer to the earth, causing a massive flood. Ponyo sets out to find her new friend Sosuke again while a storm brews behind her.

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Visually, Ponyo may rest at the top of Miyazaki’s animation achievements. Like virtually all of his other films, Ponyo is done completely by hand and contains no computer animation whatsoever, a labor of love. According to IMDB, the first twelve seconds of the film contain over 1,600 hand drawn frames and I can believe it completely. The grand total is approximately 170,000 separate images, a record for Miyazaki’s long career. This may seem like a colossal amount of material for a one hundred minute film, and it is, but many of the images are charmingly simple, more than any other Miyazaki film to date. Sometimes frames contain mostly solid colors and well defined lines, and some other times the animation rivals the startling complexity of his most involved works, particularly the incredibly detailed Howl’s Moving Castle. Already an expert in the animation of nature, Miyazaki has the entire ocean to work with here, and he does wonders with it: thousands of jellyfish, prawn and amoebae float freely in the water, crabs ranging in size from tiny to humongous sidle along the ocean floor, enormous whales swim slowly through the ocean, waves represented as giant fish terrifyingly crash into the shore and hundreds of Ponyo’s young sister goldfish act both in synchronization and independence.

Ponyo has a startling amount of material and yet feels somehow quaint, like an elongated short film. For that reason, it resembles the surprisingly short 2002 Studio Ghibli film The Cat Returns (another kids film), more than anything. Even at one hundred minutes, it feels like forty tops, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat for most of it regardless of your age. The plot contains a few head-scratchers for Western audiences. Koichi prays to the goddess of mercy, Ponyo relieves an infants cold by rubbing her face against his, and unlike other children’s fantasy films, the adults here seem to be in on the magic too. These hitches probably need no explaining or hard thinking for their homeland audience; we need to remember that Ponyo comes from the other side of the planet. Miyazaki rightfully refuses to compromise his home country’s way of life or his vision for the sake of commercial viability. For that reason alone, Ponyo will likely never receive the success or acclaim that other undersea kids films such as The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo have, at least in the West, though it stands tall by them in quality. But perhaps these few alien concepts are all for the better. They may only reinforce that Ponyo, like Miyazaki’s other work, is like nothing you have ever seen before, except maybe only somewhat like his other work. Half of everything children see is brand new. We often take this for granted, and even forty odd years into his career, Hayao Miyazaki can still completely engross everyone in the theater, and in the process even the adults are reminded of where they came from.

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Pitchfork Festival 2009

August 4, 2009

This year was my first year attending all three days of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was a great success, not just for me as a music fan and concert goer but also for the vast majority of the bands there and for Pitchfork as an organizer. I had a blast all weekend, and I saw a ton of bands play great shows. I typically find myself reluctant to stay in one place for a long time at festivals like this, and the Pitchfork Festival is in a smaller park that is easily navigable, so it wasn’t hard for me to zip around and see many acts for maybe as long as half of their total sets, and that’s just fine. I like that wider exposure to live music, and the more the merrier. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures at the festival this year, and I’m not about to steal anyone else’s for my own use, but I do think a visual accompaniment to descriptions of this festival are important, so I’d like to direct you to Pitchfork’s coverage of the festival, which is just getting started but has some pretty great pictures and interviews up for your enjoyment.

http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7687-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-friday-and-saturday/

http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7688-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-sunday/

http://pitchfork.com/features/photos/galleries/726-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-portraits/

There are also some great videos up on pitchfork.com with more to come, and I would recommend you check those out too. Also, youtube and google are always your friends. A simple “[band name]” + “Pitchfork Festival” search on either will yield positive results for both videos, reviews and pictures, so go for it.

I don’t think there is a better way for me to really start talking about the weekend then to just dive in, so I’ll start with the first day and just plow through.

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On Friday, just four bands were slated to play uncontested, elongated sets in the beautiful Union Park. Chicago band Tortoise was the first band to play, as well as the first band to adhere to the “You Write the Night” lineup, which involves bands playing songs that ticket buyers have voted for via online polls. With Tortoise, this didn’t matter so much to me, because I don’t know Tortoise well enough yet to mention songs I really like by them, at least beyond stuff on Millions Now Living Shall Never Die, which I have always liked. The show was slow moving and highly textured. This was very much a hushed and atmospheric show, which while interesting enough to listen to wasn’t particularly interesting to watch. We left early to get good spots for Yo La Tengo, because although we liked Tortoise well enough, we were getting kind of bored. The fact that we left the Tortoise show so early meant something, and I would learn soon enough exactly how it influenced the rest of the weekend.

Yo La Tengo completely embodied the contrasts of types of live shows that I would end up seeing during the weekend and in turn became even more of a foreshadowing of the weekend to come. The band’s meticulous show involves both hushed, quieter pop arrangements (“Stockholm Syndrome,” “Mr. Tough,” “Autumn Sweater”) and loud, winding noise pieces (“Pass the Hatchet I’m Feeling Goodkind,” probably the longest song performed at Pitchfork this year). Some friends I know who have already seen Yo La Tengo in smaller club environments said the band suffered a bit from the festival setup, but I think they were a great deal of fun and are a band that excel in any environment. Once again, their songs contrast with one another, some being soft pop pieces, and others loud noise jams, when Ira Kaplan does things with a guitar I never thought possible.

The show that weekend I was easily the most excited about was The Jesus Lizard. I’d psyched myself up for that show for weeks, really gotten pumped about it, got there early in order to get pretty close, and could barely contain myself by the time the band went on. I would be disrespecting both myself and the band if I called it anything other than the best show I’ve ever seen. David Yow couldn’t have affirmed everyone’s hopes any better than by screaming “AW, SHADDAP!” into the mic before they tore into “Puss” with Yow launching himself into the audience and crowd surfing. Getting back on the stage and having the entire crowd yell along with him “get ‘er outta the truck!” was easily one of the greatest moments of the entire festival.

Yow is the spirit of the band, his vocals menacing and apparently not diminished in the slightest despite the band’s ten year absence. What also struck me is how fearless he was to crowd surf. The band members are almost fifty, and they’re still putting on shows as dangerous and incredible as they did in their heyday. The entire band had a ton of energy, and they got the audience really involved, and not just by means of having people support (and sometimes shove whisky bottles in the face of) Yow. Duane Denison and David Sims have written some of the dirtiest, catchiest riffs in noise rock history, and their live delivery is fast, energetic and compelling. Also, I’ve seen some pretty good drum performances, but I’m going to have to go out on a limb and say Mac McNeilley gets the gold medal for this one. He just beat the living shit out of that kit, and rhythmically propelled everyone both on stage and in the audience. To top it all off, the band played every song I really wanted them to play. This is the show that made me realize what I wanted to make of the rest of the weekend; this weekend I wanted to rock.

How anyone could even begin to try to follow up that show is beyond me, but Built to Spill seemed like a good closer, because not everyone at Pitchfork is into hard rock, and Built to Spill is a little more fun for the whole family. We stayed closer to the back for this one and we didn’t regret it much; not only were we tired but it also seemed like the band’s delivery didn’t differ much from their albums. Granted, Built to Spill are always a treat to listen to, and even listening to them from far away when we were really tired was nice, though not much more exciting than Tortoise. They did end up playing “Else,” possibly my favorite Built to Spill tune, and I was really happy about that.

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On Saturday morning we took the train downtown, got food at Jamba Juice and Potbelly, and got to Union Park in time to catch Plants and Animals, who played a pretty good show. I don’t know them that well and really don’t have much of anything to say about them except that I do remember their drumming was interesting (although not quite as interesting as that of Caribou, who we saw playing on the same stage exactly a year earlier).

I left early to get a good spot for Fucked Up, who played one of the best sets of Saturday. I didn’t have any problem choosing between Fucked Up and The Antlers; the previous day helped me know what I wanted, and I wanted energy. And the energy and coordination which the band exercised during the show was incredible. The entire band seemed excited to be there and played well, but vocalist Damian Abraham took the spotlight. After crushing a half full beer can on his head right before the band started at a sprint with (I believe) “Son the Father,” “Pink Eyes” Abraham quickly de-shirted himself, caught beach balls which he began to bite chunks out of and deflate instantaneously (he wore one of the things as a hat) and jumped down into the press pit to get right next to the audience, where he stayed for most of the show.

These guys really played a loud, fun hardcore punk show, and they dished out a lot of fun antics. Abraham seemed to be a really nice, straightforward guy when he talked to the audience, but when he locked in during a song, he got vicious. I remember him tearing apart a baby doll, and the poor thing’s head whizzed right by my face and landed on the ground. Epic. He also gave the crowd a more than respectable score of 9.9, which as he mentioned was higher than “that Animal Collective album which I thought sounded exactly like Phish.”

After Fucked Up I moved to the Connector Stage to see The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I have grown to like their debut album a lot. Typical shoegaze, yes, but pretty good shoegaze, and I hoped they could be great in concert. But unfortunately the show was just about the only bad show I saw all weekend. The biggest problem was that everyone just wasn’t loud enough. We could blame this on the festival sound system, which I have heard other complaints about, but The Jesus Lizard had no problem being loud as fuck on the previous day. The guitars, especially, needed to get turned way up. But that wouldn’t really have saved Kip Berman from a glassy-eyed, mediocre vocal performance. It was a lousy show. It happens. I left quite early.

The Balance stage is the smallest stage at the festival, off in the opposite corner of the park as the Aluminum and Connector stages. It is usually the stage that has either the loudest or quietest bands of the festival, and I spent a good half of my time at the festival on Saturday and Sunday at the Balance stage. By the time I got there, Bowerbirds were nearly done with their set and the area was packed, so I couldn’t get close enough to observe anything beyond the fact that they were very quiet and enjoyable enough. But they were followed up by a definite powerhouse, Ponytail, who took full command of the stage. The band’s albums almost beg for a live experience. Instrumentally, Ponytail are only one of the best noise rock bands you’ve ever heard, but when you factor in the vocals, you’ve got a band that doesn’t sound quite like anything else out there. Molly Siegel and Dustin Wong make one of the oddest vocal duos in indie rock, less screaming so much as emoting with animal noises, tongue rolls and martial arts war cries.

Siegel, who donned an awesome lime green Michael Jackson t-shirt on this day (it looked like Jackson was jumping up and down as she did) is the main offender, switching back and forth between distinctive demeanors. The first is when she is screaming at the top of her lungs, and the second is when she is smiling widely, which really brings out the fact that she’s extremely pretty. Then there’s the backward head tilt accompanying an expression which suggests she’s either having some kind of fit or is about to sneeze. The energy and volume at this show was very important and rewarding for fans of Ponytail, because as good as they are on record, they only get better when they play live. When Ponytail lock in, they lock the fuck in, and the show was excellent.

I was excited to see Yeasayer at the Connector stage, just as I was excited to see them six months earlier. I’ve seen Yeasayer a grand total of three times now and each one has been unforgettable. The first-listen home run at Lollapalooza last year left my jaw at my feet, and their show at the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington D.C. was a show unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Their set at Pitchfork was much like those other two shows and yet somewhat different. Yeasayer still have the chops to put on an engaging and energetic show, but here they played a more relaxed set with a slightly altered lineup (two new members on percussion) and had a couple new songs in store. One of those new songs was a dancey piece that they played just as the weekend’s only, brief rain shower began. Luckily it only lasted long enough to cool everyone off and added to the spiritual effect of the rhythmic piece. The band also played some crowd favorites from their first album All Hour Cymbals, such as “Sunrise” (which accompanied the sun breaking out of the clouds), “2080,” and “Wait for the Summer,” as well as “Tightrope,” which was featured on the Red Hot Organization compilation Dark Was the Night earlier this year.

I went over to the side of the Aluminum Stage with some friends to catch DOOM‘s set, which by the way is a great strategy for seeing acts up close at a festival. That is, just get to the close side of the stage where the audience is thin and you can typically see just as well as if you were front and center, especially for a hip hop act like DOOM who is bound to be towards the front of the stage anyway. So we got pretty close, and actually got to see the masked villain backstage from where we were standing, albeit fifteen minutes later than we should have. When he finally showed up on stage in a guille suit, the large DOOM and his even larger and more involved hype-man got the audience moderately pumped for a show that would befuddle me more than anything.

DOOM’s lyrics and flow are top notch (I still found myself laughing outloud at “Don’t talk about my moms, yo” during “All Caps”) and his backing beats are always sick, but it become obvious after just a few minutes onstage that the tubby menace wasn’t going to do a hell of a lot more than keep his mic close to his face and walk around a little. I enjoyed this enough, because DOOM is a great rapper, but I was hoping for more. And as I would later learn, rumors quickly began to circulate that this was yet another imposter / lip-syncing show. My lack of experience with DOOM’s catalogue and live shows prevents me from being able to lend any credibility to this claim, but if it turned out to be true I would be both disappointed and unsurprised. Regardless of this, DOOM’s show was much like a piano performance at a cocktail shindig, both technically sufficient and unexciting, and did little to add to the context of DOOM as either a recording artist or live performer.

After DOOM, we had a bit of an easygoing half hour or so, taking time to use the restroom (long lines!), get some good food, and listen to Beirut from far away. My remorse for not being up close to Beirut was pretty minimal, not by any means suggesting that they played poorly. Quite the contrary, Beirut sound just as good live as they do on record. But at that point in time, I felt that what these guys were doing on stage was all well and good but just not what I wanted. I wanted loud. It was about then that I made a pretty one-sided decision between the day’s headliners, The National (who I skipped at Lollapalooza last year for Love and Rockets) and The Black Lips (who, also at Lollapalooza last year, put one of the weekend’s best shows). We decided to run over to the Balance Stage so that we could try to get a good spot for the Atlanta hooligans.

To our surprise, Matt & Kim hadn’t yet gotten on stage by the time we got there. They were almost a half hour late, dwarfing DOOM’s delay. We got pretty close to the stage and I’m glad we did, because when the NYC duo got on stage, they put on one of the absolute best shows of the weekend. I can’t imagine a two-piece band doing more damage than these guys. They looked like they wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else in the world then on the stage at that time, they were funny, they were nice, they talked to the audience, and they gave their everything for the entire set. Matt screamed and played the keyboard as energetically as anyone I have ever seen, and Kim smiled a wide smile and just beat the living shit out of her kit. Seriously, she played those drums hard. You see some people really pull back their arms to hit the drums, and so often it’s all show, and you can tell just by looking at them. But Kim was pulling back far because she was killing those things.

There was also a shocking sincerity at the show: Matt did a handstand only to remind us afterward that he’s still wearing a back brace that his mother makes fun of him for, and Kim told us that the Beyonce show they attended was incredible and proceeded to get low onstage. There was so much energy in this show and so many great songs: “Yea Yeah,” “Daylight,” “Lightspeed,” “Cutdown,” “Good Ol’ Fashioned Nightmare”… Watching Matt & Kim as the sun was setting was an absolute pleasure and one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had. And the main reason for this is because they got it across to me that they were having just as much fun as I was.

Once again, it’s not easy to follow a truly awesome band like that, but The Black Lips don’t give a shit about anyone’s expectations of them. Their show at Pitchfork was much more of a balls-out punk show than when I saw them last at Lollapalooza. That show, as excellent as it was, was more of a traditional festival show, because Lollapalooza is a high brow festival that really keeps their bands in line. But when you put a punk band on a small stage like the Balance Stage, shenanigans become possible, and the Black Lips are known for their antics. Some of those antics included a smashed guitar after the first song, the typical man-on-man making out between guitarists, inviting the crowd onstage against the Pitchfork staff’s wishes, and spraying a fire extinguisher into the press pit. One of my good friends and Black Lips enthusiast claimed that these acts seemed planned out, and they very well may have been, but only by the band themselves; that guy getting screamed at backstage by security was definitely not planned.

And to be fair, the antics at a show like this are as much part of the experience as the music itself, which was loud and rowdy as well. There is definitely something to be said for a show that feels this edgy and dangerous. These guys have found their identity, and unlike Matt & Kim, they might actually benefit from going out there on stage and being grumpy and mean and violent. But they weren’t, and we remember that the Black Lips are as much entertainers as they are punks. “I like my audience a little closer to me than this,” said guitarist Jared Swilley before inviting the crowd on stage. Some of them made it up there, and some of them got leveled by security, but I’ll be damned if all of us didn’t wish we could have at least tried. The band were a very good choice for a headliner and put on a really fun show.

♦♦♦

On the morning of Day 3 of the festival, we arrived downtown pretty damn tired, which isn’t unreasonable for Day 3 of any festival. We decided to have lunch at Wishbone, and on the way there we met up with Yeasayer bassist Ira Wolf Tuton. Of course we didn’t have much to say to him except “you played a great show!” and he probably didn’t want to waste his time with us, but he was really nice and shook our hands.

After coffee, eggs, pancakes and potatoes, we were off to Union Park again and got there in time to catch Blitzen Trapper. I thought they played pretty well, but I’m going to be honest, I really don’t remember much of anything about them, and I did remember a lot of other first-listen buzz bands that weekend. Nice folk melodies. That doesn’t really help you much, does it? By this time in the weekend, my appetite for loud music was still in full force and I was just kind of bored with folk music.

Organized Konfusion member Pharoahe Monch was my next show at the Connector Stage, and he was definitely the better of the two hip hop shows this weekend. It helped that his DJ was a lot of fun and very skillful, unlike a lot of the other live DJs I have seen, but Monch really took the show. To me, it’s important for a hip hop artist to hype up the show, but doing it too much is just annoying. The other two hip hop shows I’ve seen this year were very polarized and both less than what I was expecting. Mos Def was far too much hype and DOOM was far too much substance, but Monch struck the balance between these elements with ease, spitting rhymes and moving around as well as getting the audience to raise their hands and sing along when they didn’t already know the words. We also see the rare case of other on-stage singers really contributing a lot to the show. I don’t know who the backup singers were, but they were funny and sang great. This was what a hip hop show should be like: fun. For all I knew, DOOM didn’t care about the show he was playing. But Monch seemed really happy to rock Chicago, and we were happy to have him.

Up next were Sub Pop punks The Thermals. To my surprise, I heard more complaints about The Thermals than any other band at Pitchfork this year. What happened to a little respect? I thought these guys were great, and you know what, I love a little pop-punk and was happy to hear their set. Samesy? Alright, I can see that. It started to get a little bit like that for me, but I’m not really familiar with their output. But for another band I’d never heard before, I definitely got a lot of fun out of their show. I’m guessing they took into consideration that not everybody in the audience had heard them before, so they played a lot of awesome covers which tickled my ’90s alt-rock fancy, specifically songs by Sonic Youth (“100%”), Nirvana (holy shit, “Sappy”!), Green Day (“Basket Case”) and The Breeders (“Saints”). So yes, maybe they weren’t the most exciting band on Sunday, but they were good enough for me to want to look into them further.

The Walkmen may have been the classiest band of the entire weekend. And I’m not sure exactly why I think this. Maybe it is because they are by this time indie rock veterans, or maybe it was how well dressed they were, or it could be their seasoned, classic style, or perhaps their calm demeanor that contrasted with their spirited playing. Whatever the reason, this band just got up there and sounded like a million bucks. First and foremost, frontman Hamilton Leithauser has charisma, and he makes his excellent vocals seem cool and composed, but definitely not effortless. While belting out the harder lyrics on songs like “The Rat,” you can really tell that he’s working hard. The band mostly played songs from their latest album, the tropical You & Me, which as far as I’m concerned is all for the better, because I think it’s their best album yet. For a few songs, they even brought out a horn section, and some songs like “In The New Year” got really strong crowd response. What was great about The Walkmen, among other things, was that they could be emotional, loud and fun as well as professional.

I spent the next two hours or so at the Balance stage, and I showed pretty late in garage-rock band Japandroids‘ set, which was a damn shame because what I saw of them I liked an awful lot. Another two piece band (I seem to take a big liking to two-piece rock bands), the couple minutes I saw of them really rocked hard and provided some really memorable tunes. Seeing the guitarist up above the drummer, practically as one unit, really got me excited. So kudos to them for only needing three minutes to get me going; they have my attention and interest.

After this set my back and legs were pretty tired, so I allocated myself in front of a tree. So I would both have something to lean on and my height wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. I watched the Vivian Girls from afar, for the second time actually. The first time I saw them they opened for M. Ward at the Sixth and I Synagogue and I don’t think I gave them nearly as much credit as they deserved. The Vivian Girl’s music and live shows are covertly excellent. I thought their show in D.C. was fun but for whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling it that night and I made the assumption that the Vivian Girls were another sub-par garage rock band.

But I soon found that their debut album from last year is just incredible, but very humbly so, and their music didn’t really click with me until I sat down and gave it my full attention. So I jumped at the chance to give their live show another chance and I’m glad I did. Granted, the Vivian Girls are a band that doesn’t particularly benefit from the festival setting. They are a fast and loud punk band and the sound translates better in small indoor venues, and their stage presence is pretty simple. They rock hard and they’re fun to watch, but they don’t offer anything particularly exciting. So this show was pretty relaxed and less about what they could provide for me, and more about what I owed them. When I think about it, that’s not what a show should be like, but I try not to think too hard about shows like this. They make it easy for me to sit back and enjoy myself.

After Vivian Girls on the Balance Stage were Danish rockers Mew, which to me seemed like a bit of a weird pick for the festival. Maybe I only say that because because their genres are very far away from one another despite the fact that they work well together. Dream pop isn’t out of P4Ks interests but progressive rock typically is. In any case, Mew were about as polished looking as The Walkmen, and their set was similarly orchestrated. The songs aren’t much different live than on record, but they’re still a treat to see be performed. There was an air of confidence at this show during songs like “Special” and “The Zookeeper’s Boy” that definitely strengthened my love for them, when at points in my history with Mew there would be moments where I would say to myself “Am I supposed to be loving this?”

Yes, they have pretty faces, and yes, they are shamelessly as much of a pop band as they are a rock band, but their live sound really affirmed Duke Ellington’s famous ultimatum: “If it sounds good, it is good.” Mew sound great live, and though they may not be doing backflips on stage, they look like they are enjoying themselves and their communication with one another is interesting. Their new songs are also fascinating. “Introducing Palace Players” is a damaged, experimental rock tune, and if it is any indication of their new album’s quality or ambition, then we have a lot to look forward to. Also worthy of note is that these guys put on one of the loudest shows of the weekend. How they got that bass tone is beyond me. It rocketed out of the speakers without being rumbling or intrusive on the treble, and it permeated the air around the Connector and Aluminum stages, all the way across Union Park.

And that’s where I was after about half of Mew’s set, so I could listen to Grizzly Bear as well as get a decent spot for the Flaming Lips. Unfortunately, I really can’t say much of anything about Grizzly Bear. I like them well enough, but they were an afterthought to me compared to the band’s that flanked them in my schedule. I’m not big enough of a fan to say that much about their show, especially as viewed from far away, except they had several foot tappers and I liked them just fine.

But everyone knew what the highlight of the festival was going to be. It was apparent from the minute they were announced in the lineup and visualized that morning when The Flaming Lips‘ giant orange stage was already towering on the Aluminum Stage. And by the time the Lips got on stage, their setup was, as expected, like nothing any of us had seen before, unless we had already seen a Flaming Lips show. But with that said, what was on the Aluminum stage was almost light years ahead of their setup at the Earth Day Festival on the National Mall. The Flaming Lips had an entire day to set this up and had just about no limits as to what they could or could not do. There is really no way to communicate the band’s unique elements unless I forthrightly list them:

The giant light screen was dazzling and mostly showcased dancing naked women. One of these women went into birthing position and The Flaming Lip’s descended from her incandescent vagina. They were joined on stage by people dressed up in frog and cat suits, and later, a giant gorilla which lead singer Wayne Coyne rode on the back of. And how can we forget the giant bubble which Coyne crowd surfs in? Confetti. Shitloads of confetti blasting from cannons. And balloons. Lots of balloons.

The visual aspect of a Flaming Lips show is enough to make it a spectacle, but like last time I saw them, the real deciding factor was the music itself. The Flaming Lips were the fifth and final band to adhere to the “Write the Night” and ultimately the one that decided it’s overall outcome. The Flaming Lip’s have notoriously played just about the same set with few switchups for years. Getting them on the Write the Night roster would have ideally forced them to dig out some obscurities from their back catalogue, but as probably everyone expected and as Coyne explained, voting list in hand, everyone knows what the most popular Flaming Lips songs are, and they almost always play them anyway.

But the band seemed to get the general gist of how everyone could benefit from this system, and they did pull out some obscure numbers, specifically “Bad Days” off of Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Internal Existential Fear” (yeah, you heard me) from the Fearless Freaks compilation, and even “Mountain Side” from In a Priest-Driven Ambulance. In addition to these rarities, the band also performed two new songs from their forthcoming double album Embryonic, the tribal “Silver Trembling Hands” and the jam “Convinced of the Hex.” Reception of the new songs seems to be very mixed, but my personal opinion is that they are a good sign for a return to the Lips’ earlier styles. These songs made this show pretty unique for the Flaming Lips, but there were still some familiar sights and sounds.

The band also played their more popular songs and live staples: “Race for the Prize,” “Fight Test,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Do You Realize??” all made appearances, and many were delivered in the same way that caused me to complain about the last Flaming Lips show I attended. Three and a half of those aforementioned songs were drawn out singalongs. Which brings me to my biggest problem with the Flaming Lips’ live show. They waste too much time. Wayne Coyne, despite the fact that we would all go nuts over him blowing his nose, talks too much on stage, and the singalongs just get annoying and see the rest of the band sitting around not doing anything, waiting for the next song. When they do go full on instrumental, the band sounds incredible, and I can only imagine how awesome live, full electric versions of songs like “Fight Test” and “She Don’t Use Jelly” would sound. I can only imagine, because I’ll probably never see them. The band’s setlist seemed over before it started with eleven songs total, a teaser for all the setup that it no doubt took.

But when all is said and done, there is still no live act even remotely like The Flaming Lips, for better or worse. They look, sound, and feel completely unique. They aren’t perfect, but they would never pretend they are. They want their audience to be involved and have a fun time, and no one gets their audience involved and having fun quite like The Flaming Lips. Despite my complaints, it’s a show you’re going to want to see at least once, if not as many times as possible.

♦♦♦

Overall, Pitchfork Music Festival 2009 was an overwhelming success and really pushed the festival to the upper echelons of Summer music festivals to get excited about. There is more than just a little for everyone, and this year’s festival was particularly awesome. It may not get as many big names as festivals like, say, Lollapalooza, but this works to it’s advantage, and it ends up a more focused, energetic, manageable festival experience. Even though 2009 was only the festival’s forth year, it feels like it has been around much longer. The quality of the festival already rivals or even surpasses other Summer Chicago music festivals, and if Pitchfork can manage to keep it a comparably low-key, controlled explosion of great music, we’re still at the beginning of the event’s golden years.