Posts Tagged ‘The New Pornographers’


Chicago Music Festival Report

April 14, 2010

In 2008, I went to a single day of the Pitchfork Music Festival and all three days of Lollapalooza. In 2009, I did the opposite and went to all three days of Pitchfork and a single day of Lollapalooza. This Summer I’m happy to say I’ll be able to do all three days of both. I have my lovely grandmother who bought me Lollapalooza tickets a a surprise.

A dramatic reenactment of our phone conversation:

“Grandma! Those tickets must have been awfully expensive!”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ve been saving up quarters.”

Anyway, I thought I’d give my two cents on both festivals’ lineups.

Lollapalooza has ace headliners this year, and they’ve got the goods to call on legions of rock ‘n roll fans throughout the country.

The more mainstream leaning headliners are very strong. Soundgarden is this year’s alt-rock headliner, and the festival’s older devotees and 90’s rock fans will jump to see one of the band’s first reunion shows. Green Day, though they have lost some indie fans since their glory days, have more than enough star power to fill a stadium, and they will probably change the face of the crowd this year. But the real game changer this year, on a brilliant booking move by Perry Ferrell is the pop juggernaut Lady Gaga, who will sell thousands upon thousands of tickets for Lollapalooza. She’ll attract pop fans, preteens and hipsters alike. It stands that not many, if any other festivals have the means or the balls to pull this kind of headliner.

The indie rockers will be drinking tears of joy this year based on the presence of The Arcade Fire alone, who are due for a tour and a new album. They have been out of the live circuit for a while, but they are more than strong enough of a band to make the headliner slot. The Strokes are also a dazzling attraction. Like the Arcade Fire, they’ve also been out of commission for a long time and they’ll enjoy widespread excitement and ticket sales in response to their headlining spot. But the year’s left field headliner is Phoenix, who due in large part to their 2009 album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” have skyrocketed to the top of the indie food chain, and this slot will be great for Lollapalooza as well as Phoenix, who will consequently get a huge crowd and massive cred regardless of who they go up against in the lineup.

There’s more than enough other shit to keep just about everyone shelling out cash for at least a one day ticket:  Jimmy Cliff and Devo for the older crowd, Slightly Stoopid for the hippies, The Black Keys for the blues fans, AFI for the emos (they’re still around?), Erykah Badu for R&B and funk fans, and Social Distortion and Gogol Bordello for the punks. Perhaps more importantly, there is a large selection of big indie names on the lineup: The New Pornographers, Spoon, The National, Hot Chip, The Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer, The xx, Stars, Matt & Kim and, my favorite, The Walkmen.

Lollapalooza may have a lot of great acts, but Chicago’s biggest indie festival The Pitchfork Music Festival is comparable if not greater in terms of amount of sheer talent.

As with previous years, there is a whole slew of artists at the Pitchfork Festival that you won’t be able to see in too many other places this summer. From the start, Pavement was the festival’s big seller, probably being the major reason that three day passes sold out within the week they were available. The band have reunited for a tour in support of their compilation album “Quarantine the Past,” and we all couldn’t be happier to have the chance to see them live. The other two headliners, Modest Mouse and LCD Soundsystem, are also sought after bookings this Summer, and they sealed the deal.

But there is much more to rabble about beyond the headliners. Wolf Parade, Liars, Broken Social Scene and St. Vincent are also strong sellers. Other stuff you’ll hear me making noise about: Sleigh Bells, Alla, Kurt Vile and The Tallest Man on Earth.

The festival’s hip hop lineup this year is as strong as it has ever been, featuring the likes of Raekwon, Big Boi and El-P. You’ll see me in the crowd for all three.

There are some other very special acts that you probably won’t be able to see in many other places this Summer, particularly Robyn, Panda Bear, Dam-Funk, Major Lazer, and Lightning Bolt.

In terms of the past year’s up and coming Beach Pop scene, Pitchfork has nearly half of the major bands covered: Beach House, Delorean, Real Estate, jj, Girls, Neon Indian, Surfer Blood, Best Coast and Washed Out will all make appearances, plus the likes of Local Natives, Free Energy, and The Smith Westerns, who are though not exactly beach pop are closely related in style and popularity.

Lollapalooza will always have the capacity to bring together acts that will sell hundreds of thousands of tickets, and still have a strong selection of indie bands on tap. Though smaller and more geared towards a specific crowd, The Pitchfork Festival’s lineup this year has finally matched Lollapalooza’s in terms of sheer talent and diversity. We’ve got two great major music festivals lined up for the Summer, and I’m excited for both.


Two Country Albums

March 9, 2009

I am fairly uneducated on the subject of country music. That is mostly because I don’t listen to it, because it doesn’t toot my horn, so to say. I’ve had many people tell me, including Chuck Klosterman in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, that being one of those people who seems to like just about everything except country music makes me ignorant, or a tool. To be honest, I don’t see how that works. If country music bores me, it bores me, and I don’t have to answer to anyone about that. Of course, there is that occasional country song that might make a positive impression on me (see my review for Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha’s solo album, which contains a lot of my other attitudes about country music). But for the most part, it is a genre I am generally inclined to dislike, unless, like in James Iha’s case, it is categorized as “folk rock” or “alternative country.”

This week I just so happened to be treated to two new releases that could be categorized as “alternative country.” These albums are Middle Cyclone by Neko Case and the self titled album by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. Both albums are by solo artists and the similarities between the artists and my relationship with them are quite prominent. They are both members of popular bands, Neko Case being a member of The New Pornographers and Jason Isbell being a former member of The Drive-By Truckers. I have no experience with either solo artist whatsoever, and little to no experience with the bands that they are/were a part of. One of these albums pleased and excited me, and one of them did not. I’d like to review both of them and what they did to make me feel a particular way about them.

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Naturally, the first thing that struck me about this album was the cover, and how Tarantino-esque it is. And upon listening to the album, it becomes obvious that the cover is only a bit misleading. Middle Cyclone is an album full of rolling acoustic guitar melodies within short, digestible songs that move fast, and Case is a traveling country samurai. The opening “This Tornado Loves You” is an early highlight, with fast jangly guitars and expressive vocals. The sonic palette she uses is rather expansive, and within the song she pulls several tricks out of her sleeve: airy backing vocals, pizzicato strings, and exciting dynamics. But “Tornado” is only one of the more exciting and upbeat songs on the album, and for the most part, the rest of the songs are outstanding. This is a country album, but not in the form that most people would expect. The most classical country songs here are the two covers, one of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and another of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” As lovely as they are, they are peripheral to Neko Case’s melodies, which are comparatively free form for country music and quite exciting. The singalong “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” the music box simplicity of the title track and the jazzy stomp of “Red Tide” are a few other more memorable pieces. There is another weapon in addition to innovative songcraft that make the album strong; the sword that Case uses to cut through the songs is her vocals, and her delivery is sublime. She sings about many of the typical country topics…hard relationships, acting tough, and the love behind both. But it is the idiosyncratic country melodies and the vitality with which Case sings that keeps our ears glued to our speakers track to track.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

While a sense of subtle danger and adventure is what makes Middle Cyclone such an engaging country album, it is stagnation that conversely makes Jason Isbell’s second solo album so much of a bore. One of my biggest problems with most contemporary country music is this stagnation, immovability, and the sheer fact that I have heard this music before, so why should I bother listening to it again? It just isn’t enough to humbly comment on the changing seasons, or sing about homely charms and hard liquor. ‘We all live in an Airstream trailer ’bout three hundred yards up the lake,’ Isbell sings on the opening “Seven-Mile Island.” ‘Call the doctor, Mary’s goin’ into labor and you can’t raise a baby on shake.’ This may be reality for many Americans, and there is nothing wrong with a strong dose of reality, and this is probably where Isbell shines the most, on the notable “Soldiers Get Strange” in particular, not so much an opinion either way on an issue so much as a keen observation. But the presentation is where this album really lacks. Isbell may be lyrically grounded, but songs like “Cigarettes and Wine” are flat out boring because they follow the same country progressions and trappings which the kinds of people like me, who find themselves stuck in the middle of Ohio curiously turning the radio dial trying to get an interesting frequency more often than expected, simply want to escape from. In the end, the album is simply derivative and dull. Great albums don’t have to do new or innovative things to be successful, but the stagnant genre that Isbell comes from puts it in a different situation. The burden of proof is now on artists like Neko Case and Jason Isbell to convince me that country music is not a hillbilly novelty. In the end, Case wins out, and I will hang on, but artists like Isbell, to truly be successful, need to make a conscious effort to widen their appeal.