Wednesday, March 21, 2012

McQ's Coachella 2012 Preview - Friday Day One

Updated 03/31/2012

Okay, so we're about a month away, it's time to start previewing the Coachella 2012 lineup.

As always, declarations of must-see acts and priority sets are of limited value until actual set times come out, but once again, Goldenvoice has done such a great job creating an overstuffed lineup of stellar acts both old and new, that a little research can hardly hurt.

To further help parse the day, I'm going to group the acts into eight basic categories.

This is where, year in and year out, Coachella truly distinguishes itself from the other major American summer festivals...half the festivals this year will boast the likes of The Black Keys, Bon Iver, Girls, and Florence and the Machine, but no other festival will feature the return of acts such as Refused, At The Drive-In, Mazzy Star, James, Madness, The Buzzcocks, Squeeze, and Pulp.  Bonnaroo gets its share of pre-1980s acts (i.e. Buffalo Springfield last year), but no one mines the 80s and 90s archives better than festival head Paul Tollett.  Here are Friday's top reunion & past masters sets.

1) Jimmy Cliff & Tim Armstrong - The man many credit with breaking reggae in the US, expect an early afternoon set heavy with selects from the beloved 1972 soundtrack to The Harder They Come. Though he'll be 64 come festival time, reviews of recent performances have been phenomenal, so this should be a great, great set. I know I said it's too early to declare must sees...but this is Friday's #1 must see.

2) Pulp - Fronted by the charismatic and witty Jarvis Cocker, these veteran Brit Rockers have been at it since the early 80s, but are most known for their turn-of-the-century-era album Different Class. They haven't released a new album in a decade, but have been back performing the last couple of years. Expect a mainstage set immediately prior to The Black Keys loaded with favorites from Different Class, capped off with one of the all-time great songs, Common People,  but I know I'll be happiest if they pull some extra gems out of my personal favorite Pulp album - This Is Hardcore.

3) Refused - This will be just the second or third performance in over a decade for this Swedish hardcore/thrash punk band that disbanded in the mid-90s just after releasing one of the decade's most significant punk records, The Shape Of Punk To Come. I have no idea as to when or where they will play, though closing the outdoor as Public Image Ltd did in 2010 would seem a logical choice.  For those looking for something rough and nasty, this has the potential to be the hardest rocking set of the entire festival.

4) James - 80s/90s Brit Alt Rockers had a mild American breakthrough in 1993 with their Brian Eno produced folk-pop album Laid. Those looking for an easy Brit-pop listen in the vein of The Smiths and Coldplay would be well-advised to check James out.

5) Madness - Along with the Specials, the principal architects of the late 70s/early 80s British Ska movement, the witty band had a US/MTV breakthrough with Our House which unfortunately led to many dismissing the band as a comedy/novelty act.  Paul Tollett has tried to get the act here several times over the years, but it looks like this time he's going to finally pull it off.  My guess is the band will either play the Mainstage around six, or close the Mojave/Gobi as Devo did back in 2010.

6) Mazzy Star - Enigmatic 90s psychedelic murk rockers blended the feel of contemporary shoe gaze with the dark ennui of 60s acts like The Doors and Nico-fronted Velvet Underground.  A huge question mark, as they haven't performed in over a decade, this could be a disaster, or one of the festivals most talked about sets, but I fear the band will be so sandwiched against real heavy hitters late Friday evening that most will not see them.

For a Spotify playlist of selects from Friday's top reunion acts, click here.

These are the sets that I think have the highest chance of being home runs, coming from acts armed with excellent set lists and a reputation for having knocked it out of the park in recent performances.

1) The Black Keys - For the last several years, at least since 2009, Coachella's headliners have basically fallen into three categories 1) The very expensive to book, premiere rap or old time act (Paul McCartney, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Snoop and Dr. Dre) 2) A contemporary, slightly cheaper to book critical/hipster darling (Gorillaz, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and yes, though old timers, The Cure), and 3) The more mainstream headliner that was once hip but is now too popular for hipster-types to publicly acknowledge (The Killers, Muse, Kings Of Leon).  The Black Keys are definitely the category 3 booking this year, but if that's the case, 2012 bodes to be one of the festival's best years, because this band is a huge step up from the category 3 headliners of recent years past.  Though far from consistently great songwriters, they are a tremendous live band with old-fashioned, "ready to break out into a blistering jam" chops, and after over a half-dozen albums, of which their two most recent have been two of their best, their set list is sure to satisfy.  I've caught a portion of both their '09 and '11 sets, and was thoroughly impressed both times. Unless they are conflicting with M83, WU/LYF, Yuck, Pulp, Jimmy Cliff, or The Horrors, I have every intention of checking the full set out.

For a Spotify playlist of the most common songs on their present tour, click here.

2) Jimmy Cliff & Tim Armstrong - Already mentioned in the Friday reunions section, reviews on the reggae master's recent shows, including a set at last year's Bonnaroo, have been phenomenal.  Again, this is the day's top must see.

These mysterious and mercurial artists offer up the highest risk/reward ratio, capable of delivering the very best or very worst set of the entire day...all three question mark acts on Friday's line-up are intriguing, and I'm all in for WU LYF, but have a back-up plan in mind for these artists if they aren't hitting it.

1) EMA - I love, love, love the seething, troubled young women intensity of the solo debut album from this very edgy Midwest-based singer-songwriter who owes more than a passing stylistic debt to Rid Of Me/To Bring You My Love-era PJ Harvey, but her, slow, elegiac, instrumentally nuanced songs may not translate particularly well live, and reviews of recent performances have been decidedly mixed...ranging from brutal to ecstatic.  She'll most likely be going on relatively early in the day in the Gobi or Mojave, so you should be able to catch her in a relatively conflict free window.

2) WU/LYF - This unique, media-shunning indie band out of Manchester, England has a huge, messy, gravelly-voiced, arena-sized sound that could deliver the day's most cathartic set.  Or it could just sound god-awful.  A big fan of the best songs on their debut, I'm anticipating the former, and hope to be there from the very start until the set closer, which will most likely be the one-two closing punch We Bros and Heavy Pop.

3) Death Grips - This brutally aggressive, in-your-face rap act out of Sacramento, California offers up a massive, cutting-edge, sample-slicing style the will alienate many non-rap and traditional rap fans alike, but it can also be positively electric.  Not for the weak-eared, but this set has the possibility to be one of the three or four most uniquely memorable of the entire weekend.  Definitely worth checking out.

For a Spotify playlist profiling Friday's Big Question Mark acts, click here.

These artists garnered some of last year's most glowing critical reviews with their latest releases.  That's no guarantee they will deliver live, but you can be sure they'll be stepping up to bat with exciting, "of-the-moment" set lists heavily loaded with their most recent material.

1) M83 - One of Pitchfork's sacred cows, this French act lead by Anthony Gonzalez delivers a highly energetic, deeply nostalgic, and at times ridiculously infectious take on 80s flavored synth-pop that would be perfectly at home on a John Hughes movie soundtrack. Midnight City, from their most recent release Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, was one of last year's biggest songs, commercially and critically, so expect a monstrous crowd for this one.  I normally don't get too up for the "press play" artists live, no matter how much I enjoy them on record, but this set definitely has me excited. Get there early if they end up scheduled in one of the tents.

2) EMA - See description in Friday's Big Question Marks above.

3) Girls - A highly celebrated lo-fi act out of San Francisco, fronted by the enigmatic Christopher Owens, who was raised in a cult and never really heard rock 'n' roll until reaching adulthood.  A tremendously eclectic act with some great songs, much of the band's charm comes from how many different traditional rock 'n' roll styles they are able to coax from their limited instrumental pallet, though the ghost of Roy Orbison seems to inform most of their music.  Better on record than they are live, their live shows tend to ebb and flow with the strength of each individual song, but as I said, they do have some great songs, and their latest release, Father, Son, Holy Ghosts, offers up some much more muscular material than their debut, so expect a harder rocking set than what the band delivered in their 2010 Coachella set.

4) The Horrors - Not that well known in the states (even though this is the band's second Coachella appearance), The Horrors are one of Britain's biggest bands, delivering a shoegaze-y but very reverential take on 80s new wave music inspired by acts such as The Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds, and Echo And The Bunnymen.  I haven't seen them, but their performing reputation is fantastic, and a couple of tracks of latest release Skying, particularly single Still Life and the 8 minute Moving Further Away, portend to be absolute barn burners live.

5) Yuck - I cannot speak to this band's live reputation at all, but I loved the first half of their self-titled 2011 debut, which was as good a distillation of all that was right with 90s noise/guitar rock as I've heard in recent times.  If bands like Dinosaur Jr, Pavement, Belle & Sebastian, Sonic Youth, or Smashing Pumpkins were once your cup of tea, you definitely want to check these kids out, though they are still closing their sets with 10 minute plus sludgefest Rubber, a song definitely not worth the time invest, so catch the front of their set where they'll hit you with all their best rockin' and poppy tracks, then skip the last ten minutes.

6) Neon Indian - I'm not a huge fan, and his latest album is a bit of a bust, but 2009's Psychic Chasms, from which Neon Indian is still pulling most of its set list, is considered one of the seminal albums of the recent chill wave movement.  Light, synthy, bouncy, and highly nostalgic with tons of 70s era phased guitar, I'll probably skip this act, but many will find it highly appealing.

7) Dawes - While they haven't been promoted much by younger leaning rags/sites like Spin/Pitchfork, etc., these literate, Southern California roots rockers have been firmly embraced by older, more classic rock and Americana leaning publications.  The mid-seventies Laurel Canyon sounds of artists such as Neil Young and Jackson Browne (or The Avett Brothers for a more contemporary comparison) are the clear touchstones here.

For a Spotify Playlist highlighting Friday's Critical Darlings, click here.

Though not the only repeat acts on the day's bill, these contemporary artists return more on the strength of their enduring fan appeal than the quality of their most recent releases, which frankly, are less than stellar.

1) The Arctic Monkeys - Since their raucous, snarling 2006 debut, this still very young UK punk-pop/garage-act has delivered three more records of inconsistent quality, but all four albums contained stellar tracks, so odds are their set list should be fairly great.  I've seen them recently and will be most likely skipping this show, but assuming the do end up on the mainstage 7ish just before Pulp, a very good set to check out if you're looking for a burst of adrenaline.

2) The Rapture - Times seem to definitely be moving past this early 2000s act, who along with LCD Soundsystem and !!! were principal players in the previous decade's dance-punk movement, but their songs, including some fine tracks of latest release In The Grace Of Your Love, are tons of energetic, propulsive, quirky fun.  Should be a great set and one I hope to be able to attend.

3) M. Ward - This dust-covered Pacific Northwest roots rocker is making his third appearance in the last four years, performing solo in 2009 (where I though he sucked) and with She & Him in 2010 (where I thought he did a great job providing support for Zooey Deschanel)...expect a mellow, amiable set drawing most heavily from his upcoming A Wasteland Companion (to be released April 10), and 2006's Post-War.  This is a definite skip for me, though he has been opening recently with Post-War's Poison Cup, my all-time favorite M. Ward song, so I might try to catch the start to see if the trend continues.

4) Explosions In The Sky - One of the most important instrumental post-rock acts of the previous decade, along with Mogwai and genre kingpin Godspeed, You! Black Emperor (who also performs this year on Saturday), latest release Take Care, Take Care, Take Care is far from their best...but post-rock as a whole with its sweeping, emotive loud-soft dynamics usually plays fabulous live, and of all the post-rock bands, Explosions, with their brittle, piercing guitar tones, have always had the most original sound. They'll probably be jammed up against a bunch of top acts in the evening, but if you can make time for a track or two of this show, I highly, highly recommend it.

For a Spotify playlist highlighting these returning acts, click here!

1) Frank Ocean - Contemporary Rapper/Soul Singer and onetime songwriter for John Legend and several others, Ocean is best known for his collaborations with Odd Future and lending his powerful croon to two tracks on the 2011 Kanye West/Jay-Z collab Watch The Throne. Expect classic soul and hip-hop flavored turns in equal measure.

2) Kendrick Lamar - This Compton-based rapper has been making steady in-roads towards mass appeal with self-released mix-tapes for almost a decade now, but really blew up this year through several high-profile guest features on other rappers albums and with his first official release Section.80. Definitely one of Hip-Hop's big up-and-coming names.

3) Death Grips - By far the most interesting rap act on Friday's schedule has already been discussed in the question marks section above.

For a Spotify! playlist featuring Friday's Rap & Soul acts, click here.

Up next here...The Little Guys, but we'll be moving on to take a look at the bigger names on the Saturday and Sunday lineups first.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

SLAVE AMBIENT - The War On Drugs (2011)

The War On Drugs is a rotating Pennsylvania outfit fronted by unabashed Dylan enthusiast Adam Granduciel.  Slave Ambient is the band's third full length LP, but at this moment, The War On Drugs are probably best known as the group that spawned 2011 indie-folk breakout artist Kurt Vile.

Vile officially left the band in 2008, but given the similarities between his and Granduciel's vocal delivery...not to mention how Vile performs on multiple songs on Slave Ambient, and how Granduciel and other current The War On Drugs members serve as the primary backing band on Vile's debut Smoke Ring For My's easy to see the two 2011 albums as complementary releases exploring two different manifestations of the same shared musical sensibility.

But where Halo's primarily acoustic Dylanisms seem best suited to lazy, back porch hangs with friends on a hot summer's night, Slave Ambient's denser, far more propulsive songs scream to be heard on the open road.

In truth, Slave Ambient is so the quintessential road efficient at conjuring that easy, hazy, "half present in the moment/half lost in dreamland" mental state of driving on the open freeway...that it kills me that I've already burned the metaphor to describe other albums on this website.

So I'm just going to have to repeat myself.

Because as far as perfect recent road albums go, Slave Ambient trumps them all.

Aside from the relentless lyrical references to "ramblin'", "moving on", etc., most of this success stems from the band's multi-layered, hard-to-pigeonhole sound, which feels like it's trying to evoke 90s shoegaze, 80s new wave, and 70s classic rock all in one fell swoop, and succeeds in this recombinatory endeavor to a surprising extent.  Listening to this record, I hear faint references to classic rock artists like Tom Petty, Mott The Hoople (especially as on their self-titled, Sonny Bono channeling debut), and Dylan wrestling side-by-side with textures born of My Bloody Valentine, U2, and height of his 80s MTV popularity Bruce Springsteen.

And yet, while repeatedly recalling all of these artists, the album manages to strike an agreeable tone that feels uniquely and consistently its own.

If there's a criticism to be made of Slave Ambient, and there aren't many, it's that the songs often feel less significant than the sound...and in this way, the album does remind me some of my second favorite release of 2011, Destroyer's Kaputt, another album where the moment to moment interplay of instruments off one another had a far greater impact than the song structures in full.

But Slave Ambient is also a tremendous grower, and over repeated listens certain songs do take strong hold, especially the fine opener Best Night, the jaunty, "could have been on Born In The USA" Baby Missiles, the epic, U2ish Come To The City, and the wonderfully relaxed yet urgent Brothers.

So while overall song quality prevents me from giving Slave Ambient a straight-up strong recommend, this is as enthusiastic a solid recommend as I can album I can't bring myself to call great, but love all the same.

If you've got a road trip of any length coming up, you'd be crazy not to pop Slave Ambient into your car stereo and give it a whirl as the mile markers drift by.

Status: Solid Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Best Night, Brothers, Come To The City, Baby Missiles.

Here's the official video for the Born In The USA worthy Baby Missiles.

Component Breakdown:
1. Best Night - 8
2. Brothers - 9
3. I Was There - 7
4. Your Love Is Calling My Name - 8
5. The Animator - i
6. Come To The City - 9
7. Come For It - i
8. It's Your Destiny - 8
9. City Reprise #12 - i
10. Baby Missiles - 8
11. Original Slave - 7
12. Black Water Falls - 7
Interstitials - 7
Intangibles - High.
I-Tunes / Listen on Spotify