Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Creators Project @ Fort Mason, 3/17/2012


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Setting the tone for a day of danceable, mostly electronics-assisted rock at the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason was Brooklyn duo The Hundred In The Hands (whom I often confuse with The Head & the Heart, though the two bands have nothing in common save very low ratings from Pitchfork). They were a fitting opener, not too exciting and not too exhausting, delivering a set of atmospheric and pleasant electro-rock that was pretty but not terribly interesting. However, singer/keyboardist Eleanore Everdell is worth noting as a fine singer and synth player.


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I almost skipped New Pants’ set. They were the only band on the bill I had never heard of, and as they were billed as “New Pants + Feng Mengbo’s Bruce Lee Projection Project” or something along those lines, I figured they must have been some sort of novelty multimedia project. Moral of story: be afraid of the unknown, but never cynical about it. New Pants, as it turned out, were an absolutely insane band from Beijing (of all places!) who played a spastic, high-energy hybrid of power-pop and M83-style heavy synth-rock. The projection part of it was an extremely trippy series of video projections by Chinese “new media” artist Feng Mengbo, which ranged from color-swapped SpongeBob clips to bizarre manga footage. Combined, the experience was not unlike the first time I saw a movie in 3D--physical, engaging, high-energy, immersive, and quite unnerving but overall a total blast. I wonder how many people were disappointed that they were sober.


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L.A. crew Health delivered the loudest and most intense set of the day, an impenetrable and utterly bizarre set of smash-everything noise-rock so paleolithic it had to be good for you, delivered at volumes that probably weren’t too healthy. The entire building was pulsing--the front doors practically came off their hinges, and I swear I saw some dust fall from the ceiling onto the crowd.

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Vancouver’s Teen Daze did a DJ set of unmemorable but pleasant electronic music unaided by any visuals. While the music was pleasant, he could have easily been the house DJ, and I actually thought he might have been during the first few minutes of his set.


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Introduced by none other than San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, the only person I’ll probably ever hear use “let’s get this party started” and “The Antlers” in the same sentence, the critically adored Brooklyn outfit spent their set creating a dark, moody, psychedelic atmosphere. Indeed, “atmosphere” is the key word here--they did not play any songs one could dance or sing along to, instead casting a spell over the Pavilion with loose songs that drifted like clouds of smoke. It was also interesting seeing Pete Silberman hit those chilling high notes live, especially when he looked like he could have been any member of the audience with his beard and street clothes.


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Avant-hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, consisting of rapper-electronicist Palaceer Lazaro (Ishmael Butler, formerly known as Butterfly of Digable Planets) and singer-percussionist Tendai “Baba” Maraire, had the one of the less impressive stage shows of the night--just the two of them side by side onstage. They made up for it with a performance that was difficult not to focus your eyes and ears on, marked by unearthly distortion and bone-rattling synth bass. While the music was excellent, Shabazz Palaces are one of those bands I could have lived without seeing live. They weren’t bad--they were simply not the sort of band that has to be experienced onstage for your knowledge of their music or intentions to be complete.


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Synth-goth-pop singer Zola Jesus did not let her dimunitive height and an extremely awkward stage-dive (which resulted in her butt-sliding down my friend Kai’s head) stand in the way of her delivering the most commanding performance of the night. Dressed in flowing white robes, accompanied by a shapely and silhouetted violinist that acted as something of her foil, and aided by an abstract video projection that could have been footage of balloons or cell mitosis, Jesus posed an ethereal yet physical figure onstage. Adding to her powerful presence was her voice, a husky, operatic howl that seemed to come from somewhere else even when she was practically screaming in my ear during her stage-dive.

* 1/2

I had a remarkable sober epiphany while I was waiting for Squarepusher to begin his set. I had previously thought the name “Squarepusher” either connotated some sort of video-game action (think Tetris) or, more cheesily, had to do with “pushing squares” to become hip and get on the dancefloor. When I saw the British breakbeat pioneer contemplate his control pad, I realized it was a job description--many synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines are operated by pushing squares, and “squarepusher” is an appelation that could apply to anyone who pushes squares to make music.

Squarepusher’s set justified his workman-like title--this was electronic music at its most basic, minimal, and economic. Most of the songs consisted of little more than beats and bass, with the occasional synth squiggle or melody. How this music was supposed to hold up live was beyond me, and it may have also been beyond Squarepusher himself. The light show was only slightly less necessary than it was interesting (it wasn’t either), and the music was too fast and unpredictable to dance to while too loud and bass-heavy not to move to. The experience ended up being more exhausting than anything else, especially as my legs were fully prepared to dance but ended up locked in place from both the density of the crowd and the music.


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Luckily, the energy was quickly rekindled with a scorching set from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The New York rockers took advantage of their role as the band with the most “hits” (I've actually heard "Zero" at several janky freshman dances in the city), playing almost all of their well-known songs to a crowd that knew virtually every word. Aside from guitarist Nick Zinner’s pedals, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the only band not showcasing some form of electronic technology and were primarily interested in putting on a great show--which they certainly did.


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By the time the three main members of the defunct New York dance-rock band LCD Soundsystem took the stage with their closing DJ set, most people had left already, and the trio was left playing their immaculately crafted and insanely danceable disco mixes to a crowd of people who now had plenty of room to dance. It was a mixed blessing, as their music was simply too funky for people not to hear but also too funky not to spazz out to--and if the floor had been as crowded as it was during the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, people would be humping each other just to be able to dance.

Friday, March 16, 2012

New Xiu Xiu, St. Valentinez



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Xiu Xiu have built a long and fruitful career off of loading up everything that is sick and twisted about the human psyche into a cannon and firing it at the sane and unspoiled parts of listeners’ brains. Thus, one would expect the average Xiu Xiu fan to be thoroughly desensitized, a theory supported by 2010’s below-average Dear God, I Hate Myself. On their latest album, Always, the band’s solution is almost stupidly simple--to explore even more emotions to project onto the listener. Much of Always finds the San Jose band juxtaposing often literally danceable synth-pop beats with bandleader Jamie Stewart’s unbelievably bleak lyrics. “Joey’s Song” and “Honeysuckle” are so easy to dance to it’s difficult and not even entirely advisable to heed the lyrics. (Hell, the song called “Born to Suffer” actually has a drop.) Yet fans of Xiu Xiu’s gnarlier material need not worry--there’s still traces of the avant-noise hell of earlier albums, most notably the stomach-churning “I Luv Abortion,” which finds Stewart singing things like “I look between my thighs and see death, it’s rad” in a truly disgusting retching voice between even more horrifying screams and wails. True, Always is only intermittently effective at capturing Stewart’s bleak and traumatized vision of the world. But the best songs on Always evoke something completely different, whether or not they’re trying.


When The Saints EP

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The thing you’ll probably hear most about the St. Valentinez is that their technical prowess easily outshines that of most musicians twice their age. For the most part, this is a very straightforward but enjoyable tribute to classic funk and soul, one without much to distinguish it from a lot of similar albums by similar bands save the band’s age. But that’s not to say there’s nothing that makes it stand out--“Love Song” is a fine soul song with a haunting, smoky bass solo from Alex Szotak and a killer vocal from Will Randolph. And while their higher-energy songs aren’t quite as funky as they would like to be, one shouldn’t use this as cause to write off the St. Valentinez--they’re one of the best live bands in the Bay Area right now, capable of ripping the roof of any venue graced by their funk.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Latest from Bobby Dorward, Space Among Many, and yes Lil B

One Of These Days EP

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Blue Bear-associated musician Bobby Dorward’s debut EP, One Of These Days, is a neat, four-song collection of beautifully simple rock songs. The earnesty with which Dorward executes these tunes contributes immensely to their effectiveness--this is unpretentious rock music that is both full-sounding and stripped-down, neither minimal nor maximal. Though these tunes appear to take much inspiration from the early 1970s (see the Van Morrison-ish “Summer Days” and the Steely Dan swagger of “Looking From The Shadows”), they also occupy a sort of Platonic intersection between classic rock, soul, pop, and country--these songs are so straightforward they defy categorization, and consequently, they are immensely likeable. Though there’s nothing radical and innovative on One Of These Days, nothing that hasn’t been done better by countless other artists, Dorward’s style and songs are so effortlessly timeless it’s beside the point.


White Flame

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Lil B has created so many personas he doesn’t need to care about audience expectations. It’s impossible to be disappointed by a Lil B album these days, but it’s also more difficult to be impressed by one given that his next mixtape could very easily be a bottomless piece of trash or a Public Enemy-level masterpiece depending on the weather. His more recent mixtapes have been serious, apparently political (his rhetoric is so gleefully naive it’s hard to say) works that range from brilliant (I’m Gay) to joyless (The Silent President). White Flame, on the other hand, revels in the sort of stuff Lil B is famous for, from the homoerotic post-machismo to the esoteric samples to the moments of sheer, effortless, ecstatic brilliance (“BasedGod Fucked My Bitches,” a Daft Punk-warping anthem that stands among Lil B’s best). If your first exposure to Lil B was through timeless classics like “Wonton Soup” and “Ellen DeGeneres” or if you're just a diehard BasedGod disciple, this is your album--and as these descriptions apply to roughly 99.9% of Lil B’s fanbase, it’s safe to say White Flame will not disappoint.



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Trendsetting is increasingly difficult in the upper echelons of the pop charts, and many of the best pop acts are competent imitators. San Francisco duo Space Among Many are currently far from busting the Top 40, but they have the airwaves in their ambitions, choosing to follow this pursuit through studiously crafting the sort of music the less musically knowledgeable might refer to as “indie.” (I would call it “indie-gone-alt,” though both appelations are tricky). “Borders,” with its youthful “whoa-ohs,” steamy organs, and feel-goodish lyrics, is an admirably competent shot at a Foster The People/MGMT-style alt-pop song that is grander in scale but not far-removed from the MIDI tinkering of last year’s Images EP. At five and a half minutes, it’s overlong, and the ridiculous simplicity of their lyrics suggests they have not yet learned that their heroes’ work thrives on brains as well as hooks. Yet Space Among Many’s earnesty allows their work to shine as the product of a genuine love of their medium rather than simple imitation or bandwagon-jumping.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lana Del Rey @ Amoeba Records, 2/9/12

Amoeba, 2/9/2012

I mainly went to see Lana Del Rey's free show at Amoeba Records in San Francisco on February 9, 2012 to settle the controversy concerning her live performances. While her voice reportedly sounds stellar at most live shows, the rising pop singer's Saturday Night Live performance early this year was notoriously and disturbingly bad. I braved a line that stretched almost halfway around the McDonald's a door down from Amoeba to hear her, and by the time I managed to make my way through the door, she had already started. Though it was difficult to make out what she was saying or even what song she was playing over the din of the crowd that had come to see the artist with the number one album in America play a tiny record store, her voice sounded as clear as a jewel.

I waited by the Oldies section with my Comfort Women bandmate Daniel Meyer to catch a glimpse of the woman who has had so much written about her (Meyer and I are both avid readers of Hipster Runoff, and I had actually reviewed her album myself a few days before--read it here). She looked like nothing so much as an affable, smiling pop star, signing autographs for her fans and soaking up the fame with a warm smile suggesting she was thoroughly enjoying herself.

I later joined a throng of about a dozen fans who were frantically attempting to attract Del Rey's attention by waving through the video-annex window, staring at the singer as if she were an exotic creature behind glass at a zoo. Del Rey managed to turn and give the fans a wave before a security guard came along and herded us away from the window.