Saturday, July 14, 2012

review: lower dens, no joy at the empty bottle- 7.13.12

Pitchfork weekend is here again. I’d thought it was just me, but after speaking with several peers I’ve confirmed that this looks to be one of the weakest all around lineups in years. Last year there were a few bands that I wanted to see on the other days—i.e. Neko Case, Thurston Moore, Wild Nothing, Woods, etc.—but this year all of the bands I had any desire to see were all piled up in the Sunday lineup. The only two playing on other days were Atlas Sound on Saturday and Lower Dens on Friday. ‘Nootropics’ has been making the rounds on my turntable fairly often since its release so I was a bit bummed that I would be missing their set on opening day. When the Empty Bottle announced that they’d be playing an aftershow I jumped at the chance to buy myself a ticket—even going so far as to break my ‘no weekend shows at the Empty Bottle’ rule.

I showed up in time to catch the bulk of No Joy’s set. I hadn’t heard any of their music, but what I’d heard about it seemed promising. I’ve heard them described as a shoegazer band and also as a loud version of Lush. I’m not so sure either of those tags would be that applicable to them, but they were quite loud and their songs were built around female singer harmonies. They were far more of a feedback-drenched straight-ahead rock band with some nice blissed-out tangents built into their songs. I thought their last song was particularly great. The bass and the drums were locked into a fuzzy groove with the guitars weaving thick layers of drone over the top. The singer was doing some looping of both her voice and some of the impressive controlled guitar feedback bursts that she had going. The other guitarist chimed in at dynamic moments with thick fuzz-drenched arpeggios. It was quite brilliant and I wouldn’t’ve been the least bit upset if this set-ender hadn’t gone for a few minutes longer than it did. They were the type of band where the massiveness of the guitar sound could make drums sound puny, which forces the drummer have to put forth more effort. This particular drummer was the type I like too—chunky beats with minimal use of cymbals or flashy fills.

During the break between their set and Lower Dens the highlights of my sizing up of the crowd included an odd quartet of what I can only describe as some new breed of indie music-loving douche bags. This is something I don’t really remember existing when I first went to shows back in the late 90s and early 00s. To whit—they had an impassioned conversation about their favourite Walkmen songs and started yelling over each other about which songs were better. The highlight—‘I fucking love “In the New Year!” That song makes me want to punch someone in the FACE!!!!’ Three of them then started bouncing around like a bunch of gorillas and a few of them even started punching each other on the arm. One of them ran into me. The sober one turned and apologized to me. Later the sober one turned down another one of these individuals’ invitation to go get breakfast in the morning. After the sober one left the scorned breakfasteur said to the other two, ‘Did you fucking hear that?! That’s some fucking cold shit!’ Indeed. I also noticed a disproportionate number of tall women leading around their crew-cutted/preppy boyfriends who were much shorter than them. Kind of a surreal night.

Once Lower Dens were set up they all left the stage and then returned about 15 minutes later to start their set. I still don’t understand why bands do this and I still hate it. They launched into their set on some wooden drumming and bumbled their way through their first song. It was incredibly surprising to me that a band of their caliber, on their returning round of touring behind an adored album could give off such a sense of disconnection from each other and what they were doing. The drumming was stiff, the bass playing was bare minimum, Jana Hunter’s singing seesawed from graceful and haunting to lazy and mumbly and the guitar player simply didn’t seem to have his live sound sussed out. How this would be possible for him at this juncture is beyond me—I’m all for some heavily effects-laden guitar, but for whatever reason most people just think it’s enough to pile that stuff on there and believe it’ll automatically sound cool just because you’ve done it. A lot of his melodic lines were swallowed in whining, microphonic feedback (aka the bad kind). He even caused a false start while failing to double a keyboard line played by Hunter. What’s more if he’d just soldiered through it’s likely no one would’ve noticed. That said it’s kind of hypocritical of me to call ‘foul’ over this because I’ve stopped songs once they’ve started too (actually I think I’ve only done this four times in about seven years). What was revealed to me was that Hunter is the one doing all of the heavy lifting in this band—with things the way they were she could’ve had any three nimrods onstage with her. The music on ‘Nootropics’ is restrained and hypnotic—it sort of hovers along over the course of its songs which was evident in Hunter’s vocals and guitar playing and even in her effortless switches to keyboards, but the music was never able to take off because it was so heavily anchored in the laziness of the other players. It boiled the songs down to a half-assed 80s sound. Who knows, maybe they were having an off night, but it certainly didn’t seem like it. Most bands I’ve seen are able to pull off similar atmospherics even when they’re having a rough time—they are able to let their frustration fuel their performance. If they were having an off night there was no evidence of any frustration at this—only apathy and disconnection. Instead I left after about 30 minutes because I had to be up for work at 6am and this performance was no longer worth the sleep deprivation. I still like the record.

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