So should we really all be okay with this? A highly influential website dedicated to ultra-specific music criticism throwing its own back-patting three-day festival that books the same bands they push in a not-so-subtle instance of agenda pushing? I mean, the scenario is crawling with potential corruption. Well maybe corruption is too strong of a word, but you know what I’m getting at.
The Pitchfork Music Festival has increased in size, substance and resonance every year since its inception, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Considering that a sizable portion of the American alt-crowd get their precious music tips primarily – sometimes exclusively – from Pitchfork’s dominium, a festival like this is like a snake eating its own tail.
But it’s silly to think so hard about those things – the Festival is an elementally strong production; stages are handled deftly, depots are constantly stocked, and the line-up is always indisputably strong. It’s an easy thing to feel good about once you spent a few hours within its gates, which is good – complexities can get tiring pretty quickly.
Day One of Pitchfork Fest has been guinea pig to a variety of ideas: there were those full-album performances that never managed to catch on in the way publicists expected them to, and that flash-pan “write the night” segment which ambitiously let the fans compose a setlist which, like its namesake unwittingly implied, lasted only one night in 2009 – ostensibly after it became clear that the set the fans wanted The Flaming Lips to play was what they were going to play anyway. So now Friday exists as a truncated version of the rest of the festival: no gimmicks, no dual headliners, just a handful of music – and that handful begins with EMA.
Erika M. Anderson’s jagged, brazen debut record Past Life Martyred Saints seems to ratchet up album-of-the-year talks every week. It’s in my personal top-tier and everyone from Pitchfork managing editor Mark Richardson to journeyman rap-critic Tom Breihan has evangelized on its behalf. It’s a fairly safe place to holler from, the woman’s music is so swollen with raw, true, soul-scraping emotion that it becomes pretty clear why so many writers have been converted to her desperate charms.
On stage, Anderson is not that same burdened, bloodthirsty woman. She’s been through those ordeals and has landed on a bill with a popular record and a happenstance fanbase – naturally she seems pretty happy about that. She jokes, she smiles, and she cheerfully babbles in between songs, all full of nervous cursing and apropos thank-yous. It’s an image of a woman in a rock band, not an icon of struggle. She introduces the buzzed-about ‘California’ like The Who gearing up to close a stadium with ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ The EMA project seems to be past the tribulations that birthed its music but when Anderson is in the belly of these songs, like the gnashing ‘Butterfly Knife’ or the quiet implosion of ‘The Grey Ship,’ her whole presence is lapsed back in time. It’s those moments where she still looks like the angst-riddled, broken-hearted, South Dakotan-transplant whose arms and legs are a little too long for the rest of her body. EMA is unafraid to go back to that place; I suppose that makes sense given how bare-faced she’s been with us thus far.
Right after EMA another woman, with a similarly rising profile and persona gears up to play across the park. I speak of course of Merrill Garbus’ tUnE-yArDs. Her notoriety has skyrocketed so quickly since the deservedly-awesome w h o k I l l dropped that I’m immediately turned around from the Blue Stage when I realize the best I can do is see a small, body-painted dot partially blocked by a tree in the foreground. Bummer. At least from what I hear the woman is still on point, and I think we can all agree that whatever cult she has, she’s earned it. So I turn to a pretty good plan B.
Battles are not unlike tUnE-yArDs on an aesthetic level. Both play mind-boggling, precisely-calculated inversions on pop music – but Merrill is always centered on her voice, while Battles, erm, lost their freaking frontman in the hiatus following Mirrored. However, almost impossibly, they remain a prominent act as a trio, without Tyondai Braxton’s iconic, squelched vocals. It’s pretty substantial that they managed to put out a second record, much less tour without his contribution – but after watching the three remaining members melt away everyone’s skin with an absolutely bone-chillingly precise take on ‘Atlas,’ it’s pretty clear that there never ought to be concern. While there’s not a man with a microphone on stage anymore, it doesn’t matter. It never mattered and we didn’t need it. What we need, as it turns out, is Ian Williams, standing between two inwards-slanting keyboards, hands on each of them, pounding out synth-melodies like he’s on some bizarre, futuristic, music-making treadmill. We need John Stainer rev up what might as well be a jet engine with the sole, indomitable power of his drum-kit. So what if this song has a vocal-track on the record? Just project Kazu Makino’s pretty face on a few screens and let the band’s fucking scintillating instrumental prowess take care of the rest. As it turns out, Battles never needed Braxton, just like Braxton never needed Battles.
There aren’t a lot of crossover fans between Curren$y and tUnE-yArDs (I really hope I don’t have to type that again), because posting through the massive exit at the blue stage after her set finishes is pretty easy. Curren$y’s slack-jawed, sleepy-headed flow never rubbed me with the same euphoric, psych-slathered glow that he seems to give lots of other people, but I’m eager to see what the rumpus is about. I still don’t think I get it in the same way others do, but I will say that in an age of full-body inkjobs, blatant, perspective-blind, does-he-actually-think-that-makes-him-look-cool braggadocio, and party/barcardi rhymes, Curren$y puts the goofy charms back into shit-talk better than anyone in hip-hop today – and this is coming from someone who considers himself a Rick Ross fan.
His quicksilver cadence glosses over warm,soulful beats in two-minute intervals, usually cutting out in the back-third and letting his flow run a capella – it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book but Curren$y lavishes in those moments with pure contagious joy. The haters he harps on seem like mere foils to the punchline, his sole purpose is to smoke, flirt, and have a good time – he’s a rapper who has everyone’s best interest at heart, and that makes the Curren$y brand decidedly retro. He’s on his way, he’s got his own hand-symbol and everything, I just wish his flow would click with me on a deeper level.
Das Racist follows and continues to skirt an odd little line between smirking irony and bounce-laden, fan-pleasing bangers. I’m not sure there’s a single remark in the between-song banter that can be taken at face value, and while that sort of sums up the group’s entire trajectory, it also makes it difficult to commit to their music with a whole-heart. They play big songs for big crowds, mixtape highlights like ‘Amazing,’ ‘Rappin’ 2 U,’ ‘Rainbow in the Dark’ and a couple new songs that has everyone just as enthused as the familiar stuff. When they’re deep within the content of their jams they drop any perceived pretenses and lose themselves in the gleefully-hedonistic bass-drops and shout-along choruses, but afterwards it seems like they almost feel guilty for engaging in such traditional showmanship – they’re the Pavement of indie-rap. It’ll be interesting to watch their personalities develop as their popularity inevitably increases.
I wander over to the Green stage in preparation for the night’s headlining Animal Collective slot. It’s that nice, balmy, just-cold-enough-to-merit-a-hoodie kind of sunset; illuminating the partly-cloudy sky and the foot-tussled grass – the perfect scenario to watch Neko Case perform on a giant screen on the other side of the park. Many a music writer has talked about Neko’s near-perfect live show, but this is the first time I got to see it for myself. There are no gimmicks nor panders: most of Neko’s staff seem old enough to be playing in bands long before the woman was born, and she absolutely kills it. Her shining, from-the-earth voice that sounds so warm on record has no trouble grabbing hold of a body-ached, late-afternoon festival crowd. By the time she ‘s done, most people are wondering why everyone else has a hard time playing things straight. They don’t have what Neko has – and what she has is delectably abstract.
The crowd for Animal Collective is enormous. It seems that for a lot of people, Friday is a $45 Animal Collective concert with a lot of openers – these kids, either through misinformation or blinders-on brute-force, still don’t seem to understand that Animal Collective kinda suck live. James Murphy, when asked why he didn’t play the new stuff early on in the tour, said “I remember being a kid taking the train two hours just to hear ‘This Charming Man’ only to get ‘Panic’.”
So here are a bunch of kids who waded through planes, trains and automobiles to hear Panda Bear and company jam their way through a series of loosely connected psych-squalls, robot-farts, and the occasional, almost cursory melody. This is what it’s like to see Animal Collective; you probably won’t sing along and only the most dedicated of fans keep their heads away from phones through the entire set. I’ve come to terms that I’ll never see the band that birthed Sung Tongs in 2004 simply because I wasn’t going to their shows in 2003.
And then, out of nowhere, they play “Brothersport” and immediately a wave of “fucking finally” euphoria rushes over the crowd like some great big justifiable twitter-hashtag release. We dance, we jump and we praise the powers for playing something we know – all which is quickly replaced by a profoundly annoying smudge-song that involves Mr Lennox repeating the word ‘mercury’ in an artless, seasick belch.
Animal Collective has such a rich catalog of undisputed anthems for a certain demographic of kids. They have the power to incite a thorough riot in a festival – but they just don’t. It’s curious to wonder why – certainly, seeing a sea of adorers repeat the words to ‘My Girls’ or ‘Peacebone’ is gratifying on some level,but apparently such an appreciated performance is beneath them. They continue to sabotage prayers of rapture and sell the records that will eventually contain fleshed-out versions of these live-previews.