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My photos from the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival are featured on the A.V. Club website. Here are some additional pictures, starting with a gallery from Day 1, July 15. (Click here for photos from Day 2, and here for photos from Day 3.)
Among the many terrific things about this terrific album are the words, memorable little nuggets of real life, lyrics that pull off that trick of feeling poetic without seeming to try too hard at achieving the effect. The first song, “Teenage Wasteland,” seems to be an ode to the joy of listening to rock music — in particular, that classic-rock radio standard by the Who, “Baba O’Riley.” And it deserves a spot on the list of best opening lyrics for an album:
Do you remember the moment you finally did something about it? When the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart Stuck in the corn with only a transistor radio Making paths with the sound waves and echoes in old Baba O oh oh…
Of course, Wussy is considerably less famous than the Who, but this little band-that-could from Cincinnati has made yet another record filled with rock songs that stand up alongside the classic stuff. Wussy is one of those groups with two lead singers, and the way Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker switch off on lead vocals is a big part of Wussy’s chemistry.
Thanks in part to the championing of legendary critic Robert Christgau, who has called Wussy “the best band in America,” the group has been getting a bit more of the attention it deserves, including a recent appearance on the CBS This Morning. I chuckled at the way CBS described Wussy: “Despite a record deal, a dedicated following and critical praise, members of the band Wussy haven’t been able to leave their day jobs.” As if that’s anything unusual! (See many of the other musicians on this list.) wussy.org wussy.bandcamp.com/album/attica
2. Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here
It has been a strong year for female singers — five of them occupy spots on my top 10 list, or 5 1/2 if you count Wussy — but Laura Cantrell’s wonderful collection of old-fashioned country and folk-rock songs went largely unnoticed. Cantrell is a low-key performer, singing her lovely melodies without any grand flourishes. That’s part of what makes her songs such perfect gems. lauracantrell.com redeyeusa.com
3. Ultimate Painting: self-titled
The key reference points on this album are the Feelies and, of course, the seminal band that influenced the Feelies and countless other bands, the Velvet Underground. That formula is well-worn but far from worn out, as this delightful record demonstrates. Released by the dependable Chicago label Trouble in Mind, it’s the debut of a London group comprising James Hoare of the band Veronica Falls and Jack Cooper of Mazes (the British group, not to be confused with the Chicago group of the same name). The bones of Ultimate Painting’s songs are bare in these recordings, which almost sound like unadorned demos — the best sort of demos, the kind that reveal all the strengths and structure of a song. These tunes don’t need anything more. ultimatepainting.tumblr.com troubleinmindrecs.com
4. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want
Jones has made several great albums of authentically retro soul music since the Daptone label rescued her from a career of obscurity, and this is one of her best. The presence of backup vocals by the Dapettes and the varied, colorful arrangements give the music an added urgency. Jones finished making this record just before she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she successfully battled the disease and hit the road this year for a tour (including a triumphant show April 11 at the Vic), sounding as strong and vibrant as she ever has. sharonjonesandthedapkings.com daptonerecords.com
5. John Luther Adams/Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Become Ocean
First off, let’s stipulate that this recording can’t capture the full effect of hearing and seeing Become Ocean performed live — something I haven’t been lucky enough to experience. Adams, a composer who lives near Fairbanks, Alaska, writes music that evokes the natural world. And he designed Become Ocean to be performed by an orchestra spatially divided into three ensembles. Each of these groups plays slowly changing chords at its own pace. But even experienced through the two channels of a stereo recording (I haven’t heard the DVD 5.1 surround mix), it’s a beautiful and remarkable piece of music. Adams took the title from a poem that John Cage wrote about the music of Lou Harrison: “Listening to it, we become ocean.” That’s an apt description of Adams’ amorphous and oddly compelling music. johnlutheradams.com cantaloupemusic.com
6. Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else
This young singer-songwriter from Columbus, Ohio, belts out her smart, catchy alt-country songs with impressive strength, packing them with yearning and spunk. And her band kicks ass. Among the many excellent tracks on this album, “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” — a twangy Americana tune about 19th-century French poets — was my favorite song of 2014. lydialoveless.com bloodshotrecords.com
7. Protomartyr: Under Color of Official Right
Joe Casey, the frontman of this Detroit group, typically performs in a professorial jacket, intoning his lyrics like a half-inebriated poet. The brooding strength of that voice comes through on record, too. Using the basic tools of a standard rock band — guitar, bass and drums — Protomartyr makes intense post-punk with unusual, distinctive sonic touches, especially those otherworldly guitar lines. protomartyr.bandcamp.com/releases
8. Twin Peaks: Wild Onion
This youthful band from Chicago writes garage-rock tunes with a touch of 1970s glam, cheerfully bashing out catchy riffs and singing with what sounds like a bit of a punk sneer. This debut album isn’t quite as lo-fi as Twin Peaks’ earlier EP, but it still has the highly compressed tones of music actually recorded in someone’s garage. Thank goodness. music.twinpeaksdudes.com
9. St. Vincent: self-titled
Annie Clark, who performs under the name St. Vincent, is an amazing talent: a highly inventive songwriter; a musician who makes daring and unusual production choices; a live performer with the flair of an actress and a dancer; and a guitarist capable of blazing solos. Other than the visual spectacle of her live shows, all of that comes through in brilliant color on her self-titled album. ilovestvincent.com
10. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness
On her latest record, the former Chicagoan gets more comfortable playing with her band, making music that defies genre labels. But her stunning voice is still at the center of the music — a preternatural force that conveys deep emotion even in the moments when it seems calm and placid on the surface. angelolsen.com jagjaguwar.com
With more listens, many of these records might have ended up in my top 10. And I heard another 100 or so albums that I liked — if only I’d had enough to give them more than a spin or two. These are in roughly descending order:
Chad VanGaalen: Shrink Dust
Andrew Bird: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
Gord Downie & the Sadies: The Conquering Sun
Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin
Reigning Sound: Shattered
Cousins: The Halls of Wickwire
Bry Webb: Free Will
Swans: To Be Kind
Ty Segall: Manipulator
Nude Beach: 77
Woods: With Light and With Love
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project
Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Thee Oh Sees: Drop
Ausmuteants: Order of Operation
Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
Jennifer Castle: Pink City
The Skygreen Leopards: Family Crimes
Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics
Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London
Matt Kivel: Days of Being Wild
Mozes & the Firstborn: Mozes & the Firstborn
Outrageous Cherry: Digital Age
Ex Hex: Rips
Spoon: They Want My Soul
Beck: Morning Phase
Lykke Li: I Never Learn
Kasai Allstars: Beware the Fetish
Pink Mountaintops: Get Back
The Soft Walls: No Time
The People’s Temple: Musical Garden
Carsick Cars: 3
White Fence: For The Recently Found Innocent
Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
My Brightest Diamond: This Is My Hand
Steve Dawson’s Funeral Bonsai Wedding
Jack White: Lazaretto
New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots
Jon Langford: Here Be Monsters
Greg Ashley: Another Generation of Slaves
John Wesley Coleman: Love That You Own
The Haden Triplets: The Haden Triplets
Paperhead: Africa Avenue
Tony Allen: Film of Life
Musee Mecanique: From Shores of Sleep
Hookworms: The Hum
Krakatau: Water Near a Bridge
Records I discovered in 2014
Honorable mention goes to a few records from previous years that I discovered in 2014. If these qualified as 2014 releases, they’d have a strong shot at my top 10:
This year’s Pitchfork Music Festival — which took place July 18-20 in the usual spot, Union Park — had its share of thrilling musical moments, as well as a lot of stuff that didn’t connect with me at all. And the weather was just about perfect.
When I participated in Newcity’s roundtable discussion previewing the festival, I confessed my bias, calling myself a rockist. I do like tons of music that goes way beyond the standard rock-band format, but it takes a lot for me to get excited about electronic music, hip-hop or anything resembling mainstream pop and R&B music. And for my own personal tastes, Pitchfork had too many sets starring guys standing behind laptops and acts lacking any actual live musicians.
Over the course of the weekend, I took photos of nearly every artist that played — I missed five of the 43 acts — and those pictures in various posts here on my blog. Here’s where you can find everything:
I also filed several reviews of performances from the weekend for Newcity, which I’ve compiled below. In addition to the sets that I reviewed, other highlights for me included St. Vincent’s amazing, blazing set on Saturday and Neneh Cherry’s sultry, haunting performance on Friday — only her second U.S. concert ever, and the first one she’s done since 1992! Moments like those made the weekend more than worthwhile.
Out of the artists I was less familiar with, I was impressed by Ka’s passionate hip-hop and the strange sounds of Factory Floor. And that set by Diiv was sounding great, but I left after a couple of songs so I could photograph and witness the punk spectacle known as Perfect Pussy. (Dang schedule conflicts!)
As she sang her songs of yearning, Sharon Van Etten paused to mention the fact that she’d played once before at Pitchfork. That was four years ago, and she was barely known at the time, playing an acoustic set all by herself early in the day. She sounded a little tentative and fragile back then. This time, as she introduced one of her old songs, “Save Yourself,” she reminisced: “I tried to play this song solo and it was hard to do. And now I can’t imagine doing it without these guys.” Indeed, her dynamic band seemed essential to her sound this time, turning what might have been pensive folk songs into sprawling, multicolored rock—and she sounded all the more confident in this musical setting. Van Etten sounded fierce in “Serpents,” driven by the song’s hypnotic bass and drum lines. She closed with “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” the song that also ends her new record “Are We There,” and the passion of the tune’s mantra-like chorus felt palpable on this sunny summer afternoon. See more photos of Sharon Van Etten.
Beck seemed to take a message from the words flashing on the Pitchfork Fest’s video screens as the previous act, Giorgio Moroder, finished his set: “HOT STUFF.” Beck and his backing musicians practically bounded onto the stage, immediately allaying any fears that this was going to be a morose and mellow set. Even though Beck’s latest album “Morning Phase” is filled with the sad bastard variety of Beck music, he apparently decided not to start off his show by moaning about isolation. Instead, he delivered something more like a greatest-hits set, starting off with “Devil’s Haircut” and gleefully tossing in “Loser” halfway through the show. By the time he finally got around to playing some of those new downbeat numbers, he’d earned the right to moan a little bit—and he sounded almost majestic doing it. And then it was back to more of the hot stuff. See more photos of Beck.
Cadien Lake James, singer-guitarist with the young Chicago garage rock band Twin Peaks, wasn’t joking last week when he tweeted: “Does anyone have a wheelchair I can adopt for pitchfork? Holla atcha boy.” Playing the first set of Pitchfork’s second day under glaring sunlight on the Green Stage, James rolled out onto the stage in a wheelchair, with one of his legs in a cast. But his apparent injury didn’t hamper Twin Peaks from rocking with its usual rambunctious energy. James’ bandmates hopped around, layering riffs on top of riffs as they played a couple of songs from their debut EP, “Sunken,” and a bunch from their forthcoming LP, “Wild Onion.” The fans gathered in front of the barricade, shook their arms in the air, ready to mosh despite the early hour. See more photos of Twin Peaks.
The delicate, meditative songs Mark Kozelek records with his band Sun Kil Moon are the sort of music that can get lost in the air at an outdoor festival. Up close to the Green Stage, it felt like an intimate show, with Kozelek’s silky nylon-string guitar notes accenting his unusually personal lyrical musings about things like watching Steve McQueen movies with his dad. The rest of the band tinkered around the edges of Kozelek’s quiet plucking, creating an effect something like a chamber quartet playing jazzy folk-rock. As exquisite as that sounded, the crowd was chatty just a short distance farther away from the stage. It was the sort of festival set that seemed either beautiful or boring, depending on where you happened to be in the park. See more photos of Sun Kil Moon.
The Blue Stage’s first set of the day, a shambling psychedelic show by Circulatory System, seemed like a warm-up for the headlining performance by Neutral Milk Hotel that would come later. Both bands are connected with the Elephant 6 scene, though Circulatory System is considerably more obscure. Will Cullen Hart, who has also played with the Elephant 6 band Olivia Tremor Control, stood behind a pair of drums, occasionally pounding with mallets or banging a tambourine as he sang in the sort of high, wispy voice that’s a regular feature in this sort of Day-Glo music. The other musicians played instruments including cello, violin, clarinet and xylophone, giving it all the feel of a junk-shop orchestra, but the clattering of all the percussion had a tendency to drown out the nuances. Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum sings on Circulatory System’s latest record, but anyone who thought he might make a guest appearance during this early-afternoon set was suffering under a delusion of wishful thinking.
Before Neutral Milk Hotel took the stage for the final concert of Saturday night at Pitchfork, an announcement came over the speakers: at the request of the artist, no taking of photographs and video would be allowed. And the video screens that normally show the performers on Pitchfork’s stages went dark. Jeff Mangum, the famously reclusive and mysterious leader of this band, was visible on the stage, but even at close quarters, he seemed to be in disguise, hiding his face with a hat and a bushy beard. Mangum managed to maintain his enigmatic aura even as he was standing in front of twenty-thousand people. In the first minutes of the show, hundreds of people rushed forward for spots closer to the stage, shouting the words of songs from “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” an album whose devoted admirers multiplied many times over in the fifteen years Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel went silent. People even moshed, not something you see every day at a folk-rock concert. Mangum has a strong, braying voice, which almost seems to command others to sing along. Unfortunately, the mix accented the harsh tones of his vocals and made his acoustic guitar sound like it was cranked up way past eleven. Coming and going from the stage, Mangum’s bandmates added all the horns, accordions and drums that made Neutral Milk Hotel’s records sound like surreal Salvation Army recitals. And when audience members lifted their voices in chorus with Mangum’s, Union Park became a giant hipster revival tent.
Speedy Ortiz kicked off Sunday’s Blue Stage schedule with a burst of scrappy garage rock chords. As Sadie Dupuis sang the verses in an almost understated manner, the songs occasionally loped into off-kilter rhythms, bringing to mind the early music of Liz Phair. The three guys in this band kept the music charging forward, but the focus was all on Dupuis, whose voice rose to pleading peaks in the refrains of her songs. Whenever the time came for an instrumental break, she seemed to revel in stepping back from the mic and whipping her hand across her guitar strings. See more photos of Speedy Ortiz.
Perfect Pussy’s songs were barely discernible amid the nonstop noise and crashing as the band quickly blasted through its set on the Blue Stage, but that hardly seemed to matter. This punk band is all about bashing your head in, sonically speaking, and it accomplished that. Lead singer Meredith Graves, wearing a striped dress, rarely stopped moving as she screeched and twirled, occasionally lifting her skirt for peeks at her undergarments, while her bandmates attacked their instruments as if they wanted to break them. Not surprisingly, a few people in the audience were inspired to crowd-surf. See more photos of Perfect Pussy.
Real Estate’s breezy music, full of shimmering surfaces with chiming guitars and soft, breathy vocals, isn’t the sort of stuff that gets audience fists pumping in the air, but the New Jersey band’s pleasant set late Sunday afternoon offered a welcome interlude of relaxation. The light, airy songs drifted out across the park, and every once in a while, Real Estate picked up the tempo, sounding a bit like a venerable band from the same state, The Feelies. But mostly, the group put us in a mellow mood. See more photos of Real Estate.
For fans of the hazy 1990s British rock that came to be known as shoegaze, Slowdive was one of Pitchfork’s true must-see acts this year. Back together after a nineteen-year hiatus, the group sculpted pretty melodies out of its guitar notes during its set early Sunday evening, with Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell switching off on lead vocals, both sounding like they were lost in dreams. But then, as the chords churned around and around, the songs began to roar with an often fierce intensity—contrasting with the musicians’ calm, relaxed demeanor onstage. It’s hard to say whether any of them actually gazed at their shoes as they made that beautiful, blurry and buzzing noise, but it was beguiling. See more photos of Slowdive.
My photos of the Chicago band Twin Peaks’ performance on Saturday, July 19, in Union Park during the second day of the 2014 Pitchfork Music Festival. (My review of the set is on the Newcity website — it was one of my favorites from the fest.)
I’ve never been in a riot I’ve never been in a fight I’ve never been in anything That turns out right
— Mekons, “Never Been in a Riot”
The only thing I saw at Riot Fest that came close to an actual riot was the young guys slam dancing amid the middle-aged Replacements fans on Sunday night. Or maybe the squeals of delight and grasping arms of all those teenage girls and 20ish women who’d thronged a barricade to watch the young men of the pop-punk band All Time Low might qualify as quasi-riotous.
Riot or not, which I wrote about earlier). But Riot Fest featured plenty of other noteworthy bands, including a number of iconic punk, post-punk and new wave acts who have been playing since the 1990s, ’80s or even the ’70s.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts were the high point on Friday; even their new songs sounded good, though the crowd clearly wanted to hear the old hits, which Jett and her band delivered in style. The other bands that I caught on Friday — Screeching Weasel, Bad Religion, GWAR and Danzig — didn’t interest me as much, but I was impressed by Bad Religion’s ferocity. I stayed out of the way when GWAR began spraying fake blood at the crowd. See more photos from Day 1.
Saturday was filled with strong sets by “oldies” acts including an intense early-afternoon performance by X.
Dinosaur Jr. jammed out in the afternoon sun, closing its set with a great cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”
Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard looked tipsy as he came onstage, quickly chugging down some whisky, but as soon as the band started playing, he was kicking up his leg and twirling his microphone cord in classic GBV style.
Former members of the punk band Black Flag announced, “This is not Black Flag — this is Flag” … and then proceeded to play a bunch of Black Flag songs, prompting youngsters to crowd-surf.
Led by a warlock-outfit-wearing Debbie Harry, Blondie inspired some swooning by the band’s longtime fans. The old hits sounded good, even if the newer tunes and deeper cuts were less distinguished.
Public Enemy gave one of the weekend’s most galvanizing performances, with Chuck D and Flavor Flav jumping in tandem to the group’s political hip-hop anthems. (The area near the stage was so jampacked that I found myself caught in a dangerous crush of people when we photographers had to leave the photo pit.)
The Violent Femmes opened their concert with their biggest hits — which seemed like an odd choice, until it became clear that the group was playing the entirety of its 1983 self-titled debut album in sequence. And it just so happens that the record starts off with the group’s best-known songs. The Femmes played faithful versions of those tracks, prompting the crowd to sing along, but the show seemed to lose energy later on.
Rain came pouring down on Sunday, dampening the spirit at Riot Fest, but the music went on. I showed up in time to catch the last few songs by Mission of Burma, including a solid rendition of “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver.” A bit later, Bob Mould played one of the festival’s most intense sets, joined by Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and Chicago bassist Jason Narducy (who’s also in the touring version of Superchunk) — an ideal lineup to play the crunchy post-punk power pop of Mould’s solo albums and his recordings with Sugar. Mould told the crowd that he’s coming back to Chicago soon to make a new album.
Other highlights on Sunday included Rocket From the Crypt, who made a joyous racket as the downpour continued. I was less familiar with some of the younger bands that I saw, including Against Me!, Brand New, All Time Low and AFI, all of whom inspired fervent responses from their fans. AFI bounced around on the stage so much that it felt a bit like watching a post-punk version of Riverdance; it all seemed too choreographed. (I skipped seeing some of Riot Fest’s other bands entirely, including Friday’s headliner Fall Out Boy and Saturday’s headliner Blink-182. Not a fan of either.)
I did greatly enjoy the rainy midafternoon set by Chicago’s Twin Peaks. They might have been the youngest band playing the whole weekend, but their excellent lo-fi home recording Sunkenshows that they know some garage-rock history. Their exuberant performance at Riot Fest included at least one new song as well as a cover of They Might Be Giants’ “Boss of Me” (the theme to the TV series Malcolm in the Middle).
The rain cleared up by the time darkness fell, though the ground was still muddy in many places, including the goopy photo pit in front of the Roots Stage, where Pixies played the weekend’s penultimate set. This is the first time the band has gone out on the road since founding bassist and backup singer Kim Deal quit. She was replaced by Kim Shattuck of the Muffs. If anything, Deal’s absence may have reduced the onstage tension that was apparent at some previous shows. With lights shining behind them and their faces shrouded in darkness, Pixies opened their set with two covers: The Fall’s “Big New Prinz” and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On.” But by the time the Pixies were inspiring a crowd sing-along with “Wave of Mutilation,” I was heading over to the Riot Stage to get in line for the Replacements photo pit. It’s too bad you couldn’t hear the Pixies from over there; I would have loved to hear more of their set, but it was time to snag a spot for the Mats.