Miserable Rock Star of the day: Millions of dollars, critical and commerical success, and legions of adoring fans can’t stop sports from getting you down, as the world is finding out from these shots of Jack White in the stands of a recent Chicago Cubs game. Although, he should really know what he’s in for if he’s watching the Cubs, am I right folks? (disclaimer: I know zilch about baseball). Perhaps the people sitting next to him were talking about White’s longtime nemeses The Black Keys? Or maybe he’s just hoping they don’t mistake him for Johnny Depp.
I discovered this weekend one of the most important qualities that comprises my personality: I am not the Music Festival Type.
I had always thought (or maybe hoped) that I might be—that I would feel OK and possibly even thrive in being outside all day. That the rules of basic human biology wouldn’t apply to me and I would be able to go a whole day without having to use a porta-potty. That I would have tolerance for adults who wear flower crowns and ponchos that may or may not be ironic, who even cares anymore. But none of that is my reality, and that’s why this weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival was a nightmare.
Look, if you are the type of person who enjoys outdoor music festivals, I’m sure Pitchfork would be a complete dream. While it may have been filled with garbage and dirt, Chicago’s Union Park is actually a really nice place to be. It’s massive, but not overwhelming due to the festival’s accessible layout, and there is a surprisingly good view of the city’s skyline way off in the distance. This year’s festival featured one of the summer’s most diverse lineups, including headliners Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Kendrick Lamar, and offered plenty to do besides standing at one stage for an entire day in the hope that you’ll be able to see Jeff Mangum’s weather-inappropriate sweater up close. The CHIRP Record Fair and the Book Fort were among the most popular attractions. At CHIRP, you could shop from a huge selection of records, CDs, and cassette tapes from over 20 record stores in the Chicagoland area. The Book Fort, a modest set up near the back of the park, was maybe a little less exciting, but featured readings from Chicago Tribune music critic Jessica Hopper and senior editor of This Recording, Britt Julious.
There was also an impressive, albeit somewhat obnoxious, selection of local food vendors. There was gelato (not ice cream) from Black Dog, vegan hot dogs from Chicago Diner, and watermelon mint salad from the Rice Table. If carrying around a plate of salad while looking for a spot during Earl Sweatshirt isn’t your thing, there were also a couple free sample booths. The most notable was the Hostess Cakes booth, mainly for how entirely out of place it was. It doesn’t make much sense that, among the plethora of healthy and organic options, they were also handing out Twinkies, which legally shouldn’t be considered food. It makes even less sense that there was a man dressed as a character named Twinkie the Kid (a Twinkie who was a cowboy, though I’m sure you already knew that) who had to be led around the park by a another person because his costume didn’t have eye holes, but he was there nonetheless. Woozy from dehydration and low on cash, I opted for the Twinkie. While my choices weren’t healthy, my sense of shame was and I was too embarrassed to eat it out in the open. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything more dehumanising than trying to find a private spot in an overcrowded park to eat a free Twinkie.
The main thing I took issue with isn’t necessarily unique to Pitchfork, but just an inevitable factor of any large-scale outdoor music festival: the performances are rarely worth the effort it takes to see them. There’s a disconnect between the performer and the audience that doesn’t happen at a regular concert where everybody has come to see that specific musician. I think it’s safe to say that the vibe is a lot less intimate when half of the crowd is made up of people who just wandered to the stage after eating an artisanal corn dog. Also, the festival got off to a rough start this year, mainly for reasons beyond its control. In April, one of Sunday’s headliners DJ Rashad passed away and then, less than a month later, Kathleen Hanna’s band the Julie Ruin cancelled their set due to her relapse with Lyme Disease, causing a last minute scramble for replacements. Perhaps the biggest hit taken was the sudden passing of intended opener Death Grips, forcing the flute-laden synth-rock band Hundred Waters to take over. The zen kick off to the fest set the energy off balance, especially as it was followed by trip-hop throwback Neneh Cherry, the folksy Sharon Van Etten, and the now aggressively ethereal Beck.
One of the few exceptions I witnessed was St. Vincent, Saturday’s secondary headliner, who blew the lid off of what had started as a slow weekend. Annie Clark and co. pulled out all the stops, with a light show, expansive set list, and, most importantly, Clark’s wicked guitar-playing and bonkers choreography. I think it was the first time the crowd truly lost it that weekend. It was as if the official kick off happened two days into the festival, and it was well worth the wait. Unfortunately, nothing quite lived up to it. Neutral Milk Hotel played immediately after, a buzzkill in the truest sense of the word. The band requested that all of the monitors projecting the stage be turned off to create a more intimate atmosphere, which was fine because who wants to see a 43 year old man sing about how he loves Anne Frank anyway? It was quirky when he was in his 20s, and now it’s just unsettling.
To pretend that I’ve actually read a David Foster Wallace book, I would classify this experience as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. I don’t think Pitchfork was bad—it may have had some rough spots, but overall it’s still one of the most revered music festivals, and for good reason—it just wasn’t made for me. I think I can live with that.
New: SBTRKT - “New Dorp, New York” (featuring Ezra Koenig)
Ol’ Ezra K is making quite a name for himself as a hired hand. In the last few years, the Vampire Weekend frontman has popped up on albums by Chromeo, Major Lazer, The Very Best and Theophilus London, as well as the Oscar-nominated “The Moon Song” with Karen O, but now here he is popping up on the first single from SBTRKT’s highly-anticipated second album Wonder Where We Land. It’s a definite evolution of the sparse dubstep of SBTRKT’s eponymous debut, a little bit funk in places, a little bit These New Puritans at parts, and a big bit of Debbie Harry’s rapping in “Rapture”. It’s weird, but good weird.
If you’ve heard of J Mascis, chances are you are a fan. Not only did the guy make some of the best alternative rock albums of the 1980s and early 1990s with his band, Dinosaur Jr, but his idiosyncratic method of rock songwriting influenced countless noise rock, shoegaze and grunge bands. On top of this, he is one of the few aging alternative icons to manage to grow old gracefully. Given that he is 49 this year, he is still incredibly prolific, dropping a succession of albums with Dinosaur Jr, and a few solo efforts, all of which stand up as equals to the material from his heyday, while still making progressions in his signature sound. If you haven’t heard of J Mascis, I would like to kindly enquire after what the fuck you have been doing with your life? Stop what you’re doing and go and listen to You’re Living All Over Me and Bug right now. Then sit in silence and think about all the time you have wasted not listening to Dinosaur Jr.
Still, when your resume looks as good as J Mascis’, then the pressure is always on to keep up the quality of his work. Luckily, the enigmatic guitar hero doesn’t seem to give a second thought to this, and has knocked out yet another meticulously crafted album in a way that sounds completely effortless.
When it’s stripped down, the elements that make up this album are recognisable to anyone who is familiar with Dinosaur Jr’s work. Mascis uses simple, but effective, pop-rock chord progressions, and layers them with his signature “how the fuck does he make it sound so good?” guitar tone. The upbeat lead single “Every Morning” uses this to great effect, turning four chords, a snare and a hi-hat into a blissfully catchy number with some typically singular electric guitar solos from the man himself. Meanwhile, the closing track, “Better Plane”, is a fantastic little alternative rock ditty transposed into a sleepy folk song. Elsewhere, the masterfully paced “Heal The Star” would sound right at home on any recent Dinosaur Jr release. The little flares at the end of the phrases sound built to have some kind of effect pedal turn them into a squealing mess; however, in this more stripped down environment, you realise how magnificent some of the songwriting on their records really is.
This is not to say Mascis is simply repeating old tricks. There are several moments on Tied To A Star, just as on his other solo records, where he displays his unexpected ability to write beautiful folk leads. The opening track, “Me Again”, is a perfect example of this. The riff twists and turns and weaves its way throughout the track, providing a perfect backdrop for Mascis’ murmured vocal performance. Wide Awake repeats this, but adds strings and a female vocalist into the mix, which gives the track a perfect amount of texture to keep you interested, without becoming overbearing. Things are also shaken up on the strangely danceable “Drifter”, which sounds like an instrumental soundtrack to dancing drunkenly around a fire, which is certainly something you can’t say about many Dinosaur Jr tracks.
Of course, there are certain drawbacks to hearing Mascis step away from his pedal board. For one, his voice takes more of a central role on his solo albums, and some potential problems with it arise. His voice may have a love it or hate it quality to it: if you’re expecting dam-busting Freddie Mercury like performances, it’s probably best to look elsewhere (a Queen record would be a good place to start). The higher ranges of his voice are often utilised on this album, too, which may grate some. In essence though, most people don’t come into folk or grunge records expecting explosive vocal performances, and J’s mumbled tones often fit the weary content of his lyrics perfectly. One could imagine the refrain of “how much can I take?” in “Trailing Off” would lose some of its impact if it was delivered with any gusto.
Another potential pitfall with this album is that it relies on a certain formula; although it has to be said, this formula often works. The key to Mascis’ solo material seems to be to start off a song with sparse arrangements, and then build to a crescendo in the middle of the track. This works absolutely blissfully in some places. In “And Then”, when the electric guitar kicks in, it offers an expected change of pace that adds so much to the track, and to the album as a whole. This is also done perfectly on the aforementioned taking off, when the accelerator is suddenly hit and Mascis delivers the most blistering solo of the album over a frantic performance from the acoustic, before returning to its previous pace as if the track was embarrassed about the outburst. However, on tracks like the awkwardly placed and overly long “Come Down”, this becomes an underwhelming chore. It’s difficult to deny that J is good at what he does, but on repeated listens, this can become a tad predictable.
Overall, though, Tied To A Star is yet another beautiful listen from one of the most underrated songwriters of his generation. J Mascis has a wonderful way of not overstating things; from taking the simplest of chord progressions and carefully building them into something memorable and unmistakably individual, to his guitar solos, which always stop before they become unnecessarily overblown. If you’re a fan of this man’s work, this is an essential album for your collection. If not, you better get started on listening to those Dinosaur Jr albums I recommended. Like, right this second. There really is no excuse not to. Get cracking.
The power of M.I.A. as a pop personality is to turn every moment that surrounds her into a microcosm of righteous political anger. The world is full of chaos and violence, so her live show is full of chaos and violence. Halfway through her scheduled 75-minute slot, she invites members of the audience on stage. They’ve got the message, they dance violently, and yet full of life. They are liberated. Just as M.I.A. kicks off “Boyz”, the already poor sound cuts out and the lights go off. Boos from the audience are heard as the clearly frustrated singer has no choice but to leave the stage. Five minutes later, she returns for “Double Bubble Trouble” and, of course, the big ones: “Paper Planes” and “Bad Girls”. She has no choice but to cut the set short due to technical failures, but you’ve still witnessed one of the most important pop stars of, frankly, all-time at her most powerful yet.
As it turns out, the sound cutting off wasn’t security expressing anger at the stage invasion, but just some berk onstage kicking out a cable. But, as said, M.I.A. can take any small moment and make you focus, make it a moment, a moment of political frustration. Her show is a celebration of solidarity, and a celebration of protest. When she comes on-stage (bringing her five-year old son along with her for a moment), hundreds of glowsticks are ejected into the audience amidst the sound of trap sirens, before she rips into the adored “Bucky Done Gun”, a celebration of rap culture as well as a commentary on the Sri Lankan civil war. M.I.A. makes the party political. Trap sirens are a constant feature throughout the show, along with seemingly random samples of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”, along with dancers jumping about the stage, dancing aggressively and in the name of liberation, some wearing the now infamous “Free Tamil” shirts. “Y.A.L.A.” is a parody on the “Y.O.L.O.” phrase popularised by Drake; she turns a contemporary Internet slogan into a reference to Hindu reincarnation, and it goes down a storm. The industrial grind of “Bamboo Banga” sees her jump into the crowd, as she is held up like the icon she rightly deserves to be celebrated as.
The sound throughout is poor, and sometimes M.I.A.’s rapping can barely be heard. What the audience can hear is her saying to the people on the side that she “can’t hear my own beats”. It’s a frustrating display of amateurism from the technical team behind the festival (especially such a large one), and it clearly takes its toll on the singer, who ends the night by angrily throwing her mic over her shoulder. But the sheer chaos, energy and excitement, from both the stage and the audience, makes up for it; this is what the audience came for, and besides, the songs are strong enough to stand on their own. “Paper Planes” is nearly seven years old and has already been namedropped amongst the greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone and The Guardian, and despite the iconic gunshot effects being muted, it still goes down a storm, as does the massive “Bad Girls” (which, by the way, has the greatest music video of the 21st Century).
So while the whole show has a bittersweet side to it due to technical failings, for the hour it lasts the audience are treated to a dazzling and spectacular hype show all in the name of solidarity and liberation. It manages to be an event in of itself, and when M.I.A. storms off at the end, you know it’s only made her hungry for more.
“Surf goth” sounds like a genre that a 15 year old made up after seeing a picture of Kurt Cobain at the beach on Tumblr and, from the example set by the dark princes of sunshine, Wavves, it probably isn’t too far off from reality. Surf goth is a field that seems to be dominated by Californian dudes who don’t have much to complain about besides how bored they are with themselves and everyone/everything else; “it’s too hot out, all my friends hate me, and the people at this beach are dumb”. However, the Massachusetts band Fat Creeps are finally waking the West Coast noise from its weed induced coma with a dose of dry East Coast humor on their first full-length album Must Be Nice.
With jangly guitar riffs and buoyant drumming, Fat Creeps are a call back to beach punk bands like the Trashwomen, but with a much needed production upgrade and probably a proneness to depression. Bassist Mariam Saleh and guitarist Gracie Jackson harmonize about boyfriends, the sun, and parties, which on the surface may seem like a continuation of what every other ‘60s throwback band is doing, but there is a tinge of gloomy irony underlying it all. They monotonously sing “Isn’t she wild, having so much fun dancing in the sun?”. The droning harmonies of Saleh and Jackson give off a hymnal vibe, if your version of church is a dingy basement in Boston and your holy water comes in a 40oz.
2012’s self-titled EP was a step up production-wise from previous demos but Must Be Nice has finally propelled the band into hi-fi glory, proving once and for all that it’s possible to be a grimy punk and have clear sound quality. With all of the demos and EPs they’ve put out in their four years as a band, Fat Creeps have never once phoned it in and, still, Must Be Nice goes above and beyond anything they’ve previously released. It’s an album that is best listened to in full and in one sitting, which isn’t hard to do as it’s only a little over 20 minutes long.
The album varies from hazy grunge melodies like “Daydreaming” to punchy instrumentals like “Back 2 Skool”, while still holding on to Fat Creeps’ signature witty surf vibes throughout. One of the most outstanding songs is “Party”. Saleh mocks bro-y party hookups, talking like a stilted caveman over the jittery beat (“Leaving the party/Taking her from party”). She and Jackson sarcastically shout in the chorus “I’m gonna piss off her folks!/I’m gonna stick it up her nose!”. It’s a hard and fast song exemplary of their DIY roots and their sense of humor that is somehow both dark and goofy. The album closes with “Nancy Drew”, which is a cleaned up version of one of their first demos. It might as well be Fat Creeps’ theme song, considering how long they have been performing it and the fact that it has one of the most memorable choruses in the history of mankind (simply, “doot doot doot doooo/hey Nancy Drew”). The song opens with a quick bass line, leading into a guitar riff that sounds like it belongs in a ‘60s movie about a detective who only solves crimes that were committed during high tide. With a closer as ripe for getting stuck in your head as that, you’ll be hearing this album for the rest of your life whether you like it or not.
Song Of The Day
If you didn’t know already, brotherly duo The Bots are excellent. Having torn up venues across the world and releasing EPs over the last few years, the Lei boys are releasing their debut album, Pink Palms, on October 14th this year. “All I Really Want” is the first single from the record. Mikaiah, the band’s singer, guitarist, bassist and keyboardist, said of the album
“The process of making this album was very different from anything we’ve ever done before when recording – mostly notably that it was the first time we worked with producers… Thematically, there’s the recurring subject matter of sadness, loneliness, and regret, but underneath it all, there’s an element of happiness and an overall melancholy vibe to these songs.”
Absolutely one to keep both ears out for.
One of the things that has defined pop culture and especially music in the 21st Century is the atomization of the music industry. Aside from the major labels and their vanity plate sublabels, the music industry is dominated by perhaps millions of independent artists online and tens of thousands of micro labels based online or in local scenes. The ability to make music and record music and release music is largely open to anybody who has a computer or tablet and an internet connection. This combined with the declining importance of radio means that major labels can really only guarantee wide physical release as promotion and other forms of influence just aren’t the guarantors of success they way they used to be. The trade-off of sacrificing some artistic liberty for a huge pile of cash and a road paved to eventual stardom isn’t as lucrative as it once was, as labels become increasingly unable to secure sure-fire success for their artists. Commercially or critically. The end result is that pretty much anybody can make music and pretty much anybody can release music. There’s just tons of music out there! There’s too much music out there! Nobody will ever hear all of it, and most will hear lots that they don’t ever remember.
Where this really starts to matter is when you factor in the fact that the vast majority of people don’t even buy music anymore. Most music heard today is streamed or downloaded from blogs, file hosts, torrents, peer-to-peer, you name it. The ability of a band to make money off of record sales isn’t as important as it once was, bands make money off of merchandise and live shows. This is important to remember moving on. Bands and music are part of an ongoing trend after the age of information towards an age of curating. With all the worlds music at your fingertips whenever you want it, what becomes important is showing others your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. What becomes important is showing others what you’re into, because what you have access to is practically limitless and no longer limited to what you find in HMV or what you hear on the radio. Chris Ott covers this to an extent in Shallow Rewards #17: The Hiding when he discusses how teenagers in particular “stake a lot of their identity in the things that they enjoy.” He also covers the nature of limited editions and obscurity in an internet connected world.
In an age when people aren’t performing a transaction for the things they consume and they can freely consume almost anything they want of a certain thing, in this case music, personal taste becomes the religion. Individualist as it may be, the idea of you defining yourself through likes and dislikes of movies, music, games, books, cultural capital in general, takes on an important role in forming communities. With all of this it becomes pressing to ask: “So what of the critics? And what of critcism?” Why bother discussing something as “good” or “bad” when i’m not paying any money for it and at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is whether I enjoy my experience with it? As a critic and as critics we need to have an answer for this question: Why?
In the film 24 Hour Party People, Steve Coogan, as Manchester music deity Tony Wilson, remarks that with the advent of rave and house music people were applauding DJs. He comments on the fact that with this new dance music, people were cheering for the medium the music was being played on. People were cheering and enjoying the record player and mixer playing music that had already been recorded and mixed elsewhere. The act of playing music had become entertainment. Criticism these days is largely the same, a reflection on the original entertainment and creation that becomes entertainment in itself. Still; Why?
As I mentioned before with curating and personal taste becoming increasingly important, sorting through the impossibly large amount of information and material available to you whenever you should want it is part of the act of creating a taste and finding things you enjoy. Finding things you enjoy is the ultimate goal. Finding things you can be passionate about is the ultimate goal. If you’re a critic or you talk or write about music you should talk about things that make you want to write about them. This is the why: to show something that has compelled you in some way to feel about it. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s something to take time out of your day and at least experience. The important thing as someone who talks about music in any way becomes to let people know about things you’ve found that maybe they’d like to find. It’s to expose stuff that people may have overlooked, like post-punk from Russia or shoegaze from Pakistan. To critics and journalists, exposing acts that are overlooked by people and giving them an audience that they’ve been trying to reach is really what, ideally, happens.
Criticism and the idea of “good” and “bad” music is less important than it used to be and that’s not a bad thing. People having the ability and means to find things they like regardless of what the media-sanctioned “big thing” is is, in my opinion, a positive thing. Someone liking it and ordering a physical copy from the band or going out to a store and picking up the album if it’s in stock is better, and maybe they’ll buy a shirt too. If bands can get the exposure they want and get some money circulated back their way and play to bigger crowds because someone somewhere wrote about them and got people to give their music a chance, that’s a good thing. If people can get connected to things that they enjoy, that’s what we’re here for. If people can find something they don’t like that at least presents interesting ideas or concepts or themes, that’s another plus. You don’t hit them all out of the park. I got that new Watter album after hearing that it was a Slint/Rachel’s/King Crimson/The For Carnation collaboration. I ended up not enjoying it, but at least I’m aware it exists and I gave it a try. Who knows how many others did the same.
Take the word of journalists and critics and writers with a grain of salt. The important thing is that you discover new stuff and support artists you like so they can survive and make more good stuff. Some write because they love music. Some write to pay the rent. A bunch of shameless plagiarizers with a scattershot discography correctly pointed out that it’s “only rock and roll, but I like it.” There isn’t much else to take away.
Interview: Jack Garratt: Our very own Braden Fletcher sat down with singer-songwriter Jack Garratt after his set at this year’s LeeFest. One of the brightest young talents coming out of London at the minute, Garratt is set for a busy summer, with his new EP Remnants, a string of festival dates and support slots, and a headline show at London’s Basement on September 30th.
Listen: Jack Garratt - Worry: If the YouTube gods are feeling kind today, we’ll have our very first video interview up later on today. The subject of that interview is Jack Garratt, one of the best and most interesting young singer-songwriters on the scene right now; as a primer, here’s his superb track from earlier this year, “Worry”.