Every generation rebels against the one that came before. And every generation thinks their rebellion is somehow unique — that they are the first to think that parents suck, school is boring and the “man” is keeping them down. It wasn’t so long ago that Eminem’s lyrics were shocking; that the Sex Pistols changed rock music forever; that Elvis the Pelvis couldn’t be shown on live TV. The list goes on, spiraling down from generation to generation. This repeated story is really only interesting in its reflection of what is being rebelled against, and how that rebellion manifests itself.
Right now, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them Allare the rebellion. This young hip-hop collective from Los Angeles burst out of the gates in the last two years and have seemingly taken over the collective unconscious of disenfranchised youths nationwide. Last Friday night, they filled the Metro with anger, exuberance and a disconsolate scream that was simultaneously empty and emblematic of a generation with endless anger, and nothing to be angry about.
Arriving at the Metro only 10 minutes after the doors opened, the line outside was shockingly long. Well, to be specific, the line for men (to be even more specific, boys) snaked down the street, wrapped around the corner and headed south down Racine. The line for women was non-existent — they walked right in. Wielding my press credentials with authority, I skipped the line and entered quickly. Despite the early arrival, the crowd inside was startling — even at other sold out shows at the Metro, people tend to mill around, get drinks and gather near the sound booth. But for Odd Future, the crowd was six-deep from the front row nearly an hour before the show even began. From the very beginning the excitement was palpable, a buzz filled the arena and random chants of “WOLF-GANG” careened around the room.
With time to kill I chose to avoid the craziness on the floor and snagged a sweet spot front and center on the upstairs balcony. From this perspective I had an ideal view of the night’s best performance: the worshiping crowd below. Before the show kicked off I started to ask the fans around me about the appeal of Odd Future. Next to me stood Lauren Meyer, a woman in her mid-20s — she and I represented the higher age-range for this all-ages show. When asked about the unquestionably misogynistic lyrics of Tyler, the Creator, she replied, “Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a very opinionated feminist.” With a laugh, she added, “But I relate it to Eminem. I don’t think he’s really telling people to go out and do this stuff. He’s just open and raw and it’s all about shock value.”
As the crowd fills in, we speculate on the fan demographics, “I’d guess it’s 80% white kids, 85% of them from the suburbs and most are 18 or younger.” She is exaggerating, but the crowd is remarkably younger and whiter than would be presumed for a hip-hop show.
By 8:15 p.m. the floor is completely packed and has started doing the aggressive and sudden shifts that spontaneously occur in close quarters like these. Unsuspecting audience members face the threat of being overwhelmed by the crowd.
WHY? stands at an intersection of musical styles — not quite hip-hop, not quite indie rock, their sound defies easy categorization. The Museum of Contemporary Art stands at another crossroads: as a museum it must, by definition, lionize the past, but to stay relevant they must also look forward. It’s this mix of Janusian styles that helped make WHY? and the MCA perfect bedfellows for an evening of music on the MCA Stage.
Many may not even realize that there is an excellent performance venue at the MCA. Tucked around the side of the daunting front stairs, and buried below the museum proper, the MCA Stage is an intimate, nearly 300-seat auditorium. The MCA books a variety of theater, dance and film performances, along with many art-focused talks throughout the year. WHY?’s performance and Andrew Bird’s upcoming two-night set in December may signal a shift to a greater number of musical acts filling their calendar. The MCA Stage really is a treat, compared to most of Chicago’s music venues — it’s clean, has excellent sound and boasts flawless sight lines. It is, perhaps unfortunately, best suited to music on the subdued end of the spectrum, but that’s no flaw as long as the booking continues to follow suit.
Photo by Kris Lenz
This Saturday’s shows opened with performances by Chicago native and recent LA transplant Serengeti (aka David Cohn). The affable Serengeti performed a short set of his quirky and ironic hip-hop, backed only by acoustic piano and simple beats and punctuated by the occasional, terrible recorder solo (Cohn claimed his dad wouldn’t come see him “talk” unless he played an instrument). This stripped-down set up matched Serengeti’s quirky flow and his charming stage-banter and enthusiasm won over the hometown crowd.
WHY? is the brainchild of Yoni Wolf, an emcee/singer who is backed by his brother Josiah and two multi-instrumentalists. On record, Yoni Wolf half raps-half sings abstract lyrics over a swirl of keyboards, samples and hip-hop breaks. The performance at the MCA Stage was meant to be an “unplugged” performance, so they stripped the sound back to simple instrumentation: acoustic piano, strummed electric bass and percussive accents. Wolf’s voice is a make or break aspect of the WHY? sound — you either love it or hate it. In this intimate setting he sounded excellent — his voice ringing out crisply, making it easier to stumble down the winding staircases that are his obtuse but profound lyrics. The instrumentation was flawless with all members offering backing vocals and expertly recreating the often dense and complicated sound that is WHY?’s trademark. The sold-out show was performed to an appreciative crowd that hung on Wolf’s every word.
There has been much discussion of late on the MCA’s appeal to the growing millennial audience. In a slick show of cross-selling, any concert attendee could bring their ticket stub to the MCA for free admission the following week. If the MCA is really looking to hook a younger audience, booking hip, contemporary artists like WHY? and reaching out to their fans is an excellent step in that direction.
Silvertone, Hofner, Kay, Teisco and Airline — this is the stuff of gear-geek wet dreams. If you haven’t heard of these vintage musical instrument companies, don’t feel bad — most of them haven’t been manufactured in 40 years (with the exception of Hofner, who still enjoys some Beatle-based fame). Caveats aside, it’s still impressive that all of these names were onstage with the Dum Dum Girls this Friday at the Empty Bottle.
These days, you hardly ever see a major band onstage without at least one or more of the standard stable of guitar brand names (Fender, Gibson and their respective subsidiaries). This was not the case with the Dum Dum Girls, and it stated something very clearly: that this is a band rooted wholly in that past. Those instruments are a calling card for an entirely different era than our own — one where warm tones are for suckers and every song waxes romantic about love lost and found. The band has this sentiment down to a science with their “Baby’s in Black” outfits and four-part harmonies, but it was often hard to get a feel for how honest it all was. We always look back at music in the early 60s as being so naive, but was it really always so calculated?
Photo by Brandon Goei
The performance was spot on, with all four members pulling their weight. Jules, lead guitarist, has improved vastly since last year’s “I Will Be”-based tour and Sandy, drummer, seemed the most talented onstage, proficient and poignant, while providing an anchor for the band. What seems to be the point of contention between all the band’s fans is their studio output — DDG’s 2010 album “I Will Be” was a gritty album of double-time garage rock, while the band’s latest output, “Only in Dreams,” encompasses a more clean and shimmery pop feel. It seems like something not easily perceived in a live set, but it was — even the old songs sounded less tinny and more polished. The the star of the show wasn’t the energy — it was the songs themselves, which managed to distance the band from their roots in the girl group and lo-fi movements and pushed them further towards straightforward old-school pop.
Whether this is good or bad, it’s hard to tell. Loyal fans of frontwoman Dee Dee (née Kristen Gundred) will recall her previous work in Grand Ole Party, which was something of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs-inspired skeletal blues/funk/rock project — in other words, nothing like Dum Dum Girls. That band lacked the kind of stage presence that early DDG performances commanded from their audience, just as maybe the latter lacked the focus and precision that “Only in Dreams”-era DDG achieves so solidly. It’s hard to criticize a band for growing and learning, especially if it’s in a direction that furthers their songwriting and technical skill.
Production politics aside, the band’s performance was a solid one, though maybe not as engaging as it could be. The setlist, laid directly in front of the crowd and printed in bolded, unable-to-ignore Helvetica, probably had something to do with the lack of tension and surprise, but if anything, the single-song encore made up for it. Ending with the slow-burner “Coming Down” absolutely brought the Empty Bottle alive with memories of prom night waltzes and Bic-fueled dreams. Instead of the typical “set fire to the stage” encore that most bands employ, Dee Dee belted a pair of fanfare-inducing high notes and Jules lit up the crowd with a barn-burning solo — Dum Dum Girls chose wisely to gently turn their crowd toward a windy Chicago night.
The aspiring chanteuse has many role models to choose from these days — the radiowaves (Internetwaves? Do people listen to radio?) seem especially packed with lady rockstars. For inspiration she can choose the calm indie charm of Feist, the ever-growing cult of Lykke Li or even the bellowing omnipresence of Adele. One little lady might be slipping under the radar, but if her performance at Lincoln Hall last Wednesday is any indication; she won’t be overlooked for long.
Zola Jesus is a lesson in contradiction. It’s generally improper to focus on the physical proportions of an artist, but for the inimitable Nika Roza Danilova (Zola Jesus) it serves as an appropriate launching point. Zola Jesus is small — like, 4’11’’ — and hardly bantamweight. At first sight, one might assume she’s of the squeaky, twee school of indie singers. Listening to just one song quickly shakes off that illusion.
Photo by Kris Lenz
Her music, in two words: dark and muscular. Brooding overtones and throbbing bass set the low-end while driving, emphatic drumming gets the crowd moving. But then this tiny little thing takes the stage.
This night, she was dressed in a shining white mix between couture, flowing gown and lampshade — something your grandmother would call “sensible.” She grabs the mic, lets a quick smile slip then BOOMS out in an impossibly rich, throaty and powerful voice. As the music builds she flits about the stage, spinning, dancing and singing in a cacophony of visual and aural stimulation. She doesn’t participate in the screeching that has become de rigueur in this post-American Idol world. She knows her tone and stays within the low registers, emphasizing with heart, not hysterics.
Near the mid-point of the show she took her charming crowd interaction to another level. She clipped off her mic and jumped into a stunned audience. Sailing around the room, it was impossible to keep track as she ran to and fro, weaving in and out of the audience, singing all the while. She was a swirl of white, turning heads and dropping jaws. From the show’s beginning there was a super-fan up front singing and dancing along the whole time. As Zola Jesus returned to the stage, she stopped in front of the fan and began jumping up and down with him in time. Soon the whole front row was jumping and singing ecstatically. Even a hardened concert veteran like myself, who has seen all sorts of stage antics successful and otherwise, couldn’t help but be impressed by her genuine, intoxicating and contagious enthusiasm.
Photo by Kris Lenz
One must commend Zola Jesus for touring with a band (three multi-instrumentalists and a drummer). Her music is essentially a solo project and would likely have been enjoyable had she sung to a drum machine. But the energy provided by her band, though they at times looked like misfits from a Sprockets casting session, was essential to the power of the show.
Zola Jesus’ set was constructed wonderfully as the last four or five songs lead to a tremendous climax. It’s unfortunate that the same night of the show Portishead came to town for a much hyped-show. It’s easy to imagine many crossover fans of both artists. Regardless, those who came out were treated to an amazing show from an artist who may soon be rivaling Feist, Lykke Li and others in acclaim.
Out now on Secretly Canadian (buy)
“Black Hills” available as free download via Amazon
Gardens & Villa’s self-titled debut is pretty good at mimicking the soaring vocal swells and synth-sweet sounds of acts like Grizzly Bear, but don’t mistake them for wood-flute-packin’ wannabes — their music has a quirky menace of its own.
The album’s first track, “Black Hills,” crawls along in a sort of indie-chimed wonderland, with layered, transcendental vocals, pulse-steady drum clicks and a synth-heavy sound that makes it a subtle charmer, perfect for Monday morning when your head needs a jump. And moving forward to what is easily one of their best tracks, “Orange Blossom” is a perverted bassline of funk and circumstance accompanied by an Orb-inspired rainfall of sonic booms, delicately creepy synth-dings and a pleasantly moody vocal track.
“Spacetime” is an unexpected surprise, opening with a fun and jerky Doctor Who-meets-B-52’s dance party. It continues with its keyboard-happy ’80s vibe until the sweeping chorus kicks in, which, lest we forget the song’s title, repeats it for us (and repeats it for us) until circling back to the dance floor to continue the funk.
If you’re into wooden flutes nudging you to softly to sleep, “Sunday Morning” is a good choice. A soaring vocal track floats along nicely without much variation and the chill-wave continues with “Carrizo Plain.” It starts off with a Tarantino-style Spaghetti Western whistle-off (think Kill Bill), but then moves swiftly back to type with lead vocalist Chris Lynch’s falsetto undulating over a velvety, otherworldly beat.
Clearly talented musicians, it’s a great first effort by Gardens & Villa. Not many bands these days put out an album with more than one or two songs worth raving about, but with this debut delivers no less than four: “Black Hill,” “Orange Blossom,” “Thorn Castles” and “Spacetime.” It goes without saying that when Gardens & Villa go full-tilt chill, they’re at their lo-fi, kick-ass best.
Nurses’ new album “Dracula,” alternatively described as brutally artsy or dripping with melodious funk, could be a contender for one of the few albums of the year which actually lives up to all the hype.
Much has been said of the noticeable shift from their sophomore effort, “Apple’s Acre” — something of a homemade disjointed, electro-pop sprawl — to the lush grooves, new-wavy rhythm and tightly controlled production value of “Dracula.” Apparently, once you reach pop-music maturity, ecstasy follows: the intricately styled and spontaneously dance-worthy tracks continue to generate a considerable amount of buzz and the accolades don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
“Fever Dreams,” the rapturously clap-happy first single, is an example of the band’s skill at infusing dance-heavy basslines with ghostly, boom-tastic backtracks. It’s the precursor of delightfully odd things to come — especially next, with the deliciously smug “You Lookin’ Twice,” which pays homage to the slow, smooth funkified jive of the standard Prince keyboard riff (you know the one), layering nicely into the edgy coo of lead singer Aaron Chapman’s swaggering vocals.
The gloriously catchy, finger-snapping “Trying to Reach You” pairs Chapman’s slickly coy vocals woo-hoo’ing and oh-oh’ing with one of the most original synth-fuck tracks in all of indie-pop. Arguably the band’s best track, it marks the band’s move from electrified intellectualism into the palpable physical realm of the really, really good dance song. It’s the ultimate experiment in mayhem, and though it takes a while to get there, it’s definitely worth the wait.
The remainder of the album continues to ride on down the melodious hit-making track with ease by taking a Cure-esque cue now and again. By mixing queasy/quirky vocals, tinkling, left-of-center piano solos and the gloomy rumbles of drum-machined booms, the last half of the album assumes a more eclectically mellow vibe then the first — though it’s just as groove-ready.
Inviting comparisons to acts such as Liars and Animal Collective (aka the reigning darlings of music’s experimental underworld), “Dracula” has officially ushered in a new chapter for the band. Copping the Portland trio some serious indie-rock cred, “Dracula” is Nurses’ most psychedelic sing-along to date.
Fans of operatic, soaring vocals and churning, atmospheric waves of sound are officially on alert: Zola Jesus is performing at Lincoln Hall this Wednesday (10/12). Successfully riding a cresting wave of critical and blogosphere adoration, Zola Jesus (aka Nika Roza Danilova) is touring on her new album “Conatus.” This new work pulses with life and marks a major step forward in song craft and production. Zola Jesus’ star is rising — now is the time to catch her.
The sound can be a bit difficult to articulate. She’s a true artist in a way that identifies influences, but her sound is unmistakably her own. Some reference points include early Tori Amos-esque vocal acrobatics and beats and melodies that are a mélange of Fever Ray’s throbbing intensity and Massive Attack’s arctic chilliness.
Lincoln Hall is an ideal venue for a Zola Jesus show — the acoustics ensure she’ll have the rich, full sound she deserves. And such a small venue can’t help but provide an intimate atmosphere. Combine that with the kinetic energy of her three-piece backing band and the show promises to be a treat.