cartwheels into your heart

Friday, July 22, 2005

[UPDATE: Finished version. Yeah!]

Intonation Day Two:

I stayed up late on Saturday night, so my main goal on Sunday was to get to Union Park in time for Out Hud at 2:45. Let Us Never Speak of It Again is still one of my favorite records of this year, and I'd been kicking myself for waiting too long to get tickets when they played the Empty Bottle in April. I threw on my faded Tortoise t-shirt (which I justified by reasoning it was the day after their performance, in the same way that Amy Phillips had worn her green ringer Decemberists shirt on the day before), caught the el (the usually low-traffic Green Line again looking amusingly like the Indie Rock Express), and waltzed into the park about halfway through Xiu Xiu's set.

Out Hud was, of course, fantastic. Though singer Phyllis Forbes often appeared chagrined for some reason, the band happily delivered thick, pounding beats, doleful cello, and a dazzling array of electro blips triggered to get everyone dancing. And despite the 90-degree midday heat, we did. Okay, maybe not everyone: one girl spent half the set casually lying on a picnic blanket in the dead center of the crowd, reading the new Harry Potter (wtf?). Her opposite, though, was the sweaty, scrawny kid with neck zits and braces who pushed his way in front of me so he could convulse and smother-hump someone I presumed was his girlfriend. Anyway, you almost felt like a schmuck if you didn't dance, especially after Nic Offer, beaming and whooping it up, announced that he'd only gotten two hours of sleep the previous night: so, you know, what was your excuse? And though it's been quoted everywhere by now, the afternoon's funniest moment indeed came when Offer, having propelled water bottles into the crowd to counter dehydration, turned to the box of snack packets on the side of the stage: "Fucking Teddy Grahams!" he said, incredulous. "What, were these on Xiu Xiu's rider or something?"

I bought two water bottles to cool down, then headed over to the Holiday Stage for the Hold Steady, a band I've always wanted to like more than I do, but given their focus on narrative and their reliance on meat-and-potatoes rock, probably won't convert me just yet. Still, I'd heard good reports about their live act, and I did find Craig Finn an affable frontman. Apart from the rollicking "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," the most memorable aspect of the set was Finn's stage patter. "Any Twins fans out there? ... The problem with talking about baseball is that it tends to divide the auidence rather than unite them. So can we all just agree that the Yankees suck?" And this: "We were on Carson Daly, and Scarlett Johansson was scheduled to be on, too. Except I guess she had to cancel at the last minute, so instead of Scarlett Johansson we got ... Tucker Carlson. It was kind of like when I went to see Guns N Roses and Iron Maiden circa Appetite, and GNR dropped out and were replaced by Megadeth. [cocks ear to crowd] No, I'm sorry, Megadeth are not awesome." [EDIT: Apparently Tom was the one arguing the point!] The other highlight for me was the dapper Franz Nicolay, who'd do these huge keyboard swipes so cavalierly that I wondered if he was even playing at all!

Andrew Bird's lofty plucks and whistles made for nice wafting background music while I sat with friends by the third-base bleachers and played two rousing rounds of Uno in the late afternoon. I skipped Deerhoof for a black-bean-cake and roasted corn on the cob and then ignored the Wrens in favor of more commiserating, including nods at Shawn and Barry in the WLUW Record Fair Tent.

So: Les Savy Fav. I had high hopes for the performance, for sure, since I'd seen them once a couple of years ago and was bowled over by Tim Harrington's manic stage antics. Back then, though, all he really did was run into the crowd with his shirt off and snip locks of hair off audience members. On Sunday night he showed up in a tight red t-shirt and gym shorts, was bare-chested within five minutes, and ended up with a mess of foil on his dome and nothing but Polaroid-stuffed briefs below. In between, he attempted to make out with VIPs, convinced the crowd to crouch down and moan sexually, and later parted the audience so he could unfurl and then dive onto a Slip'N'Slide. His patter was a mix of scruffy-sweet enthusiasm in the manner of The Chris Farley Show -- "This concert is AWESOME, you guys" -- and jokes like this: "Hey ladies, lemme hear ya if you like a fella with money! Hey fellas, lemme hear ya if your testicles ache when you defecate!" Yeah, and uh, the band was rockin', too! I mean, I'm just happy they played "Reprobates Resume," which is easily my favorite LSF song. Also, it occurred to me during "Kidnapped" that there's a debt to Pavement in the band's tightly wound melodicism and half-sung vocab collage (perhaps I was also reminded of Malkmus's own kidnap tale, "The Hook"), and now, with the band's future in question (it was their first show in a year), I'm not sure who carries that legacy anymore. Pity.

About 10 minutes before LSF finished, I scurried over to the DJ tent for the first time all weekend to catch Diplo. When I showed up he was spinning "Blue Monday" and all the kids were dancing, so I was pleased. I mean, I'm sure some people complained about the obvious indie-ness of his set, but I don't care too much about that: I love dance parties where I look around and everyone in the room is singing along to "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" or whatever. I like the favela stuff, sure, but at that moment I was happier to hear "Banquet" mix into "Bombs Over Baghdad" and "Deceptacon," and danced much less self-consciously than I did in the middle of the heat-immobilized crowds earlier in the day. For his encore, Wes opened with "Wait (The Whisper Song)"; I'd been hoping to hear that song in a crowd where I could monitor people's reactions, but I couldn't really tell much. Nobody went crazy for it, nobody looked mortified. He closed with "Galang," natch.

I'd seen the Decemberists a few months ago, and I have sort of a love-hate relationship with the band, so I wasn't all about getting up close or anything. But as I wandered the grounds, watching girls in emo glasses moon over the band, mouthing all the words, and their boyfriends jumping in excitement, as I nodded along to "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" under the Chicago night sky, it occurred to me that it was the perfect way to end the weekend.

At the Hideout afterparty, I leaned over at one point to congratulate Ryan on the weekend's success. He thanked me, and I turned my head to see Tim Harrington attempting to breakdance, very poorly, while Scott Herren spun old jazz and soul. I leaned back and said, "In some ways it was probably worth it just for this, right?" He smiled.

Singles this week. Should've said but didn't: "This is How a Heart Breaks" is a total Patrick Bateman song. Maybe that's why I like it.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Man, Intonation Fest was a blast this weekend. It totally exceeded my expectations, given my skepticism about seeing bands during the day amidst of thousands of other people. (I went to see Donna Summer at the Taste of Chicago a couple of weeks ago and was so far away from the stage I had to watch her on a Jumbotron, and I was surrounded by people reeking of brats and nachos and dripping sweat, so eventually I just said eff this and went to snag some unsatisfying lukewarm food of my own.)

But this: well, for starters, everything was remarkably well organized and designed. The food lines were sometimes long, but at no point during the day did you have to wait more than a couple of minutes for a bathroom, and you could basically walk up for a beer at any time. Even though there were thousands of people there, it never felt swarming: there was plenty of space away from the stages to hang out in the shade, smoke under the trees, toss around a Frisbee, whatever. Even the crowds gathered around the stages felt fairly navigable. Maybe some of this is more typical than I think -- the only other similar festival I've attended was Lollapalooza, ten years ago now -- but I was impressed with how easy everything was.

I showed up on Saturday afternoon a little before AC Newman's set, but after the first song, I decided that I didn't really want to brave the sun for a dude I've never heard before nor been especially interested in, and so I dedicated the first few hours of the festival to hanging out with friends and meeting up with with some out-of-towners. I had sort of hoped to catch Four Tet -- despite finding his records pleasant but boring, I was curious to see his set-up -- but ultimately decided that having his ponderous skitter-cycles piped in from across the park while waiting for pizza was more than enough. And then, you know, I think I subconsciously determined that Broken Social Scene weren't going to equal the fantastic show they performed at the Empty Bottle two summers ago, so I only paid enough attention to them to hear the vocalist yell, "We're suing the cops of New York City!" Right on.

So really, the first band that I watched from beginning to end was the Go! Team, from Brighton, UK, whose joyous mixture of found sound and childlike chants sometimes resembles the Avalanches. The set was apparently the Pitchfork staff's consensus favorite, and if my enthusiasm didn't quite reach those heights, it may be because the sound was murkier if you weren't right up close, and I was somewhere in the middle. Still, the boundless exuberance of frontwoman Ninja, clad in a hot pink tank top, made up for it. I cheered on the instrumental "Junior Kickstart," which sounds like Sonic Youth jamming with the Grambling State Marching Band, and, like everyone else (even DeRo!), was charmed by the African-American kids who were brought in from the neighborhood pool across the street to dance on stage for the last song. Of course, the band did have its detractors: backstage, SYGC manager Neptali Figueroa drunkenly complained that they sounded like the Spice Girls (to which David Raposa visibly winced), while Kelefa Sanneh used the phrases "supremely irritating" and "Black Eyed Peas" in his Times diss. (Yes, that's right, DeRo likes 'em and Kelefa doesn't. Should I be less surprised about that for some reason?)

I probably should've stuck around for Prefuse 73, considering I've missed him every single time he's played in Chicago (one time I even waited in line for an hour to see him DJ, only to realize I'd left my ID at home), but it didn't seem like the right environment. Plus, I had the opportunity to sneak backstage, where I said hello to more Pitchfork writers and drank free beer in a little wooded alcove.

Toward the end of DFA1979's set (not my thing), I gathered at the front of the Decimal Stage to wait for Tortoise. It was maybe the sixth time I'd seen them, and though it didn't match the peaks of, say, their 1998 Metro show, when they were beautifully augmented by Isotope 217's horn section, the band was surprisingly loud and energetic this time around -- if a bit rhythmically cluttered, perhaps. I was particularly happy their set leaned so heavily on TNT, including "I Set My Face to the Hillside," the Ennio Morricone-meets-Steve Reich number that's been my go-to Tortoise mixtape track for the last few years.

Like others, though, I couldn't help but be disappointed at the lack of new material. When I saw Johnny Herndon at Sonotheque last week (he DJed before Lady Sovereign), he told me coyly that there might be some surprises. Realizing that Will Oldham would be in the house, I suspected that the bearded crooner would join the band for a song from their recently recorded covers album. But I also caught Herndon mutter, "Guess we'll have to arrange a rehearsal," and indeed, when DeRo asked whither Oldham, the band said they didn't have time to practice. Makes sense to me, but DeRo responded in his column: "Since when is rehearsing important in indie rock? Jeez, is this Kenny G.?" I know I pick on him too much, but there's at least three things wrong with this complaint, which I'm not going to even touch.

Stay tuned for Day Two. But while you're waiting, you can read Pitchfork's own accounts (1, 2) of the festival, Fluxblog's recap, Tom Breihan's report, Maria Tessa Sciarrino's thoughts and photos, and Nick Sylvester's wrap. (Who am I forgetting?)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

A new Stypod entry from yours truly: three songs that have been sampled in 2005 hip-hop hits.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

An article I wrote about Scott Walker, upon listening to his recordings for the first time. I'm pretty pleased with it.

Friday, July 08, 2005

I uncovered an amusing mini-manifesto while going through some boxes of old writing. It was written in response to an argument I'd been having with a friend about the responsibilities of critics and tastemakers, prompted by his frustration at a Tower Records employee's 2002 year-end list, which was comprised almost entirely of Def Jux albums. Said friend thought that if you're going to publish a top ten (this was on the Tower website), you have an obligation to be more diverse than that, or else the list is meaningless. (Never mind the fact that some random dude at Tower doesn't exactly have the same job description as Kelefa Sanneh, but our conversation took a natural turn toward criticism as a whole.) Here's what I said, much of which I still agree with:


1. The only obligations of the professional critic are A) to be open-minded, and B) to be honest. To be open-minded is to approach each object equally; it is not to assess each object equally. Leveling one's assessment -- such as to be more diverse, more accessible -- is an alteration of one's primary judgment and is therefore dishonest.

2. The value of professional critics is that their increased experience and investment in their critical discipline makes them less susceptible to the kind of large, irrational biases that impair authority. But their principal task is the same as the consumer's task: to experience and evaluate art. And insofar as they are human, some bias necessarily remains. Attempting to ignore bias, then, is also dishonest.

3. No top-ten list is worthless because there is no universally agreed-upon, pre-determined function of such lists. Anyone can make a list, for any purpose: to document, to inform, to recommend, etc. (While critics are encouraged to meet certain professional obligations in their lists*, listmaking in itself has no obligations.) Likewise, different readers may find different uses for any given list. None of these uses is any more valid than any other.

* I'm not sure exactly what I meant by this.

Weird week for singles. I really thought that the Mike Jones song would be more popular (I blame David for not participating this time around!); as it stands his overall score is more than a full point below Jessica Simpson's, whom I imagined was a shoo-in for dud of the week.

Speaking of which, I was thinking the other day about the songs I've rated for Stylus this year, and how, inevitably, I end up changing my mind sometimes, because a song's either grown on me or worn out its welcome after the initial three days I have to listen to it.

I've determined that the song I most underrated is "Oh," by Ciara ft. Ludacris, to which I gave a 5 and accused Ciara of sounding "bored and glum" (much to Mark's chagrin). These days, though, what I hear is poised and cool, not to mention sexy -- and I absolutely adore Ludacris's verse, turning it up in the car to echo his beautiful nonsense. It's probably more like an 8.

The song I most overrated is "BYOB," by System of a Down, which impressed me with its schizoid structure, but I fear now that I was responding to the novelty, since I haven't really had the desire to listen to it again. I might say the same thing about "Turn Off Da Lights," by Tweet ft. Missy Elliott. Although in both cases, I wouldn't actually downgrade them that much: I gave them 7s, when they should be 6s. I say "overrrated," then, only because 7+ is best-of-the-year material for me, and I really don't think they make the cut.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

in which I present my top ten singles from April thru June, in no particular order, one day at a time

Stars, "Ageless Beauty"

So I'm going to tell a similar sort of epiphany narrative here. For the last couple of years, I've listened to my bandmate Elizabeth talk about how great Stars was, but even after seeing them live with her, I wasn't able to muster much enthusiasm beyond a recognition that Torquil Campbell (looking to unseat Stephin Merritt as the David Sedaris of pop) and Amy Millan had superb voices that blended nicely. When Elizabeth would wax ecstatic about the band's overwhelming emotional effect, I would nod and think of people who believed in the "magical transcendence" of the Flaming Lips. Plus, you know, indie pop: there's only so much you can do. (Which, haha, must explain why all I've been listening to in the past week has been PAS/CAL and Of Montreal, bands that Tim Ellison might consider "twee prog." I swear I had Of Montreal wrongly pegged for a while there, though, mentally lumping them in with fellow Elephant 6ers Apples in Stereo and Elf Power, whose brand of psychedelic pop is more indebted to the fuzzed-out feel-good 60s underground and is thus far less dance-oriented [hint: I prefer the swooshing synths and ping-pong beats, thx].) It's really only because Set Yourself on Fire (and its accompanying glowing reviews) raised the band's profile considerably -- they're headlining the Metro now instead of playing to a scattered crowd at Schubas -- that I even decided to revisit them at all. But oh man, I'm glad I did.

SYOF is one of those rare records that shifts between multiple styles -- the dry lounge duet "The Big Fight" goes right into the boisterous "What I'm Trying to Say (draped with a "Blue Monday" synth line) -- and nonetheless feels of a piece. It's something that their labelmates and fellow Canadians Broken Social Scene attempted and I'm not sure were entirely successful at. For all of the high points of You Forgot It in People, there was also a tendency toward eclecticism for its own sake ("we've got one of the guys from Do Make Say Think, so let's write a post-rock song!"), and the record ultimately lost steam toward the end. Set Yourself on Fire, on the other hand, is tied together by a generous spirit of unabashed romanticism. Though the single "Ageless Beauty" sounds like virtually nothing else on the record -- its persistent wall of shoegaze and entwining pixie vox channel Lush (whom I wish were imitated more!) -- it also fits right in.

Monday, July 04, 2005

in which I present my top ten singles from April thru June, in no particular order, one day at a time

Coldplay, "The Speed of Sound"

I suppose it's easy enough to dislike Coldplay, even apart from Chris Martin's hubris: when I first heard "Yellow," I took it for a particularly toothless Dave Matthews song, already outfitted for IKEA dinner parties and the like. "Clocks," however, changed my mind. The band sounded no less middlebrow, but that propulsive piano arpeggio quickly got under my skin, and I eased into the floating epic melancholy, too. The rap against "The Speed of Sound," Coldplay's highest charting U.S. single (thanks to the recent integration of download sales), is that it's no more than a "Clocks" rewrite. I can see what people mean -- there's a descending, reverb-laden piano, Martin's voice is similarly plaintive -- but the guitar here, almost absent from "Clocks," navigates the big-sky spaces with plucky abandon, and even if the general point were true, I can't help but find it a dynamic and engaging sound.

Top Three Edge Guitar Parts of 2005

1. Coldplay, "Talk"

Yeah, the riff is famously borrowed from Kraftwerk's "Computer Love," but the tone is pure Edge, a distant echoing buzz that underlays the song with a gritty texture that perfectly complements Chris Martin's milky wail.

2. The Killers, "Smile Like You Mean It"

Throughout the majority of "Smile," the guitar serves to provide an early 80s atmosphere while the leaping synth takes center stage -- then, out of nowhere, comes a fantastic jagged, driving solo comparable to the best bits on "New Year's Day."

3. U2, "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own"

The Edge mostly makes do with a rhythmically agitated two-note figure, but it's instrumental to the song's success, allowing a frisson of tension to creep into Bono's world-embracing sentimentality.