Thursday, 24 June 2010

Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid

Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid (****)
album review for the skinny

It's easy to hear why Janelle Monáe has taken four years since her breakthrough as a guest on OutKast's Idlewild to complete her own debut album: The ArchAndroid is a staggeringly ambitious attempt. It's a first-time shot at a grand conceptual masterpiece that makes you wonder whether, considering the struggling record industry, she's perhaps pegged this as her only chance. She'll surely get another because her talent is obvious – the Big Boi-featuring Tightrope shuffles to an African rhythm before heckling horns intervene, Faster glides effortlessly and exuberantly like a Solange take on Stevie Wonder's Keep On Running, and Neon Valley Street showcases the full expressiveness of Monáe's voice. Almost inevitably for an 18 song opus, there are missteps – Make The Bus, featuring Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, irritates as a Love Below pastiche, and the psychedelic ballad Sir Greendown frustratingly interrupts the momentum of a fantastic opening sequence. There is a masterpiece here, but it’ll take a little skipping to find it.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Primavera Sound 2010

Even when it gets little things wrong, Primavera Sound never really fails.

feature for the skinny

Primavera Sound has its fundamentals cast in stone: always a great line-up of music (always, in fact, far too much great music to see), in one of Europe's most beautiful cities, under the Mediterranean sun. So, while I'm going to explain a little why Primavera 2010 wasn't a vintage year in the context of its predecessors, it's with reluctance that one would attach negativity to it at all. Weeks like this one make life worth living.

Over the weekend we clocked Wilco, Spoon, Orbital, No Age, Mission of Burma, Tortoise, Low, Sunny Day Real Estate, CocoRosie, Wire, Liquid Liquid, HEALTH, Shellac and Sleigh Bells on the Primavera schedule; we didn't see any of them perform. The depth of the Primavera programme means there's frequently three- or even four-band clashes, which makes for some wrenching choices, and some fast cuts. Gary Numan played Cars third in his set, and then watched half his crowd leave to go elsewhere; it's a competitive market.

Primavera's expert curation and wonderful location mean it's getting more popular every year. Fittingly, as it's primarily an indie music festival, its fans have mixed feelings about it succeeding too much. What the organizers are presenting as the great achievement of attracting record attendances of 35,000 per day, is experienced by the crowds as a reason for disappointment, since it's now harder to get near the stage, takes longer to walk between them between sets, and takes longer to queue for the toilets or for food. As you might argue for many bands on this bill, Primavera's best days may have been before "everyone else" discovered it.

But even if that's the case, it's doubtful anybody left Primavera in the early hours of Sunday morning disappointed. For, at worst there was still the final few gigs in the city centre's Joan Miro Park later that afternoon to look forward to, and a closing party featuring Jeffrey Lewis and Black Lips (another two to add to that list; we chose paella on La Rambla instead). For the non-Barca resident, the Primavera experience begins when you arrive in beautiful Barcelona. We spent the day before the festival wandering the labyrinthine streets of the Gothic Quarter, dipping in and out of old, dark bars and cafes, and exploring parks with glorious fountains.

Despite the rise of music tourism, Primavera's core crowd is still decidedly Spanish (or, more precisely, Catalan). It's hard to say whether anyone ever listens to what The Fall's Mark E. Smith is saying anyway -- as opposed to how he says it -- but surrounded by singalong Spaniards, phonetically feeling their way in the dark, it becomes even more mysterious. On one song, sung by the keyboardist, MES is so bored that he wanders the stage, splays his fingers across her keys like a drunken duck trying to type, and then smirks. He hates the sunshine.

The XX sound like they hate the sunshine too -- tall bassist Oliver Sim looks like a young Lurch -- so their pre-sunset slot is poorly timed. But as the sun drops, the darkness shrouds their songs in gloom, and the bright stage lights shining on their faces present a similar black-white contrast to their album imagery. After much restrained tension, the climax of finale Infinity is stunning, with Sim slamming cymbals as bass beats blast like machine gun fire.

Thursday's headliner is the newly reformed Pavement, who are just as the backhanded compliments of their youth suggested: very good. There's a thrill in simply seeing them perform so many of their best songs, but our favourite parts are when Bob Nastanovich gets involved: leaping to the front of the stage to yell the chorus to Conduit For Sale, leaping up and down to hit a wood block on Silence Kid, and, well, leaping to the front of the stage to yell the chorus of Unfair. Like a big kid, he looks like the one band member enjoying it as much as the crowd.

Geoff Barrow's Jaki Liebezeit-indulgence project Beak> is apparently inspirational in a dark, intimate setting, but as with The XX, here a large stage, bright sunlight and Mediterranean backdrop makes it difficult to admire. A little later, in the dark, Beach House make the same ATP stage intimate with an inspirational set. Their sedated sound bores some, but fatigue makes you forget social pretences, so the Baltimore duo's permanent tiredness lends an end-of-tether honesty to their ballads. Finishing with the unusually peppy 10 Mile Stereo sends us away regenerated.

Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington is more frontman than singer, and more ADHD-mad toddler than frontman. He emerges in a giant furry bear suit, wearing flashing red lights round his eyes, strips down to his pants, then runs a good 30m through the crowd to balance, on his belly, on the top of a pole. He then races past us -- we're not near the stage at all -- nearly taking our neck off with the mic cable, finds a fan on someone's shoulders and heads to embrace him. There's a burst of noise -- no singing yet -- and he returns to the stage to attempt to climb it. Les Savy Fav are exciting to listen to, but they're much more exciting to watch.

Unfortunately where we headed next, The Vice stage, was problematic. Everything we saw there lived down to expectations. Panda Bear had to perform with a minimum of on-stage lighting, and at a volume which barely washed over the crowd's excited chatter. Stood there in darkness, with a guitar and a mixing desk, Noah Lennox's echoing warble sounded dreary, not trippy. Like Numan, whose fans abandoned him three songs in, Panda Bear had to deal with a quick exodus. Numan himself was delayed 25 minutes by technical difficulties, and Yeasayer's post-Pixies set was hampered by poor sound too.

Pixies themselves were thrilling, moreso than we expected. Sure, Black Francis has moobs and Kim Deal has a new "manageable" haircut, but fans lamenting the loss of Pixies' youth, the fantasy of their early wee garage shows, are clutching expectations wildly out-of-step with, y'know, how time works. Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain. Isla De Encanta and Vamos are sungalong to by Spaniards relishing lyrics they understand for a change, and Hey!, Debaser, Broken Face, Nimrod's Son and the encore of Gigantic and Where Is My Mind? get ecstatic receptions too. In a festival in thrall to nostalgia, the Pixies exude the most vitality. After Diplo finished the night at 5:30am, we walked five minutes to the beach to watch the sunrise, then went for breakfast. More Friday nights should finish like that.

The Food: Do the free-poured spirits with mixer count as food? The non-alcoholic food in Primavera is pretty poor: its signature dish, the pizza cone, is only to be enjoyed ironically ("It's like an ice cream, but pizza!" and so on). The flavour of the pad thai remarkably managed to be overwhelmed by the taste of the cardboard box it was served in, but the felafel kebab gains a few points by actually being a chicken kebab. A nice surprise for me, probably not if I happened to be a veggie.

Inevitably, Saturday begins slowly. Van Dyke Parks is credited with assisting Brian Wilson away from the Beach Boys' surf-pop origins towards the avant-garde, having worked with him on SMiLE. In the auditorium, his traditional pop and classical influences are clear: while superficially similar to Sherman Brothers-era Disney, his arrangements are complex: Parks on piano, his cellist, bassist and violinist all seem to start playing different songs before converging together. His modest patter is hugely endearing, his return for an encore seems genuine, and the standing ovation that follows certainly is. Built To Spill's set at the ATP stage is packed with highlights from classics Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like A Secret, but it's an epic rendition of Goin' Against Your Mind from the less-appreciated You In Reverse that unleashes rolls of energy through the crowd.

Headlining the final night on the main stage, Pet Shop Boys' bizarre on-stage choreography is endlessly entertaining: dancers with boxes for heads building walls, line-dancing skyscrapers of the world, box-headed couples fighting with the bricks of the wall; Neil Tennant dresses up as a king, and Chris Lowe seems to wear a pineapple on his head. More entertaining are their hits -- Can You Forgive Her?, What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Go West, Always On My Mind, West End Girls -- which buffer the lesser known songs to keep the mood high.

Finally, the 3am clash between The Field, Orbital and HEALTH is particularly galling, but we have no regrets about picking the former, at the Pitchfork stage. Playing with a drummer, guitarist and bassist enables Axel Willner to exercise a lot more fluidity in his performance than Ableton Live alone would allow; or at least, it looks more like a performance than a man at a laptop ever could. The drummer is especially good, adding frills, rolls and extra rhythms to create new patterns; he needs a break after 45 hypnotic minutes, before a final 15-minute Over The Ice that seems to hold for an eternity before shattering.