Friday, July 25, 2008

A Million Years Later: Pitchfork 2008 - Night One

(Mission of Burma - Live at Pitchfork)

Download: Mission of Burma "Ok/No Way" (via Matablog)
Download: Sebadoh - "Two Years, Two Days" (via Aquarium Drunkard)
Download: Public Enemy - "Rebel Without A Pause"

Hey gang. Even though the festival ended three or four days ago, and most of the other blogs have given their thoughts and feedback about Pitchfork 2008. But hey, my name means nothing if it isn't Johnny Relevance. So, here we go. My review of the third incarnation, starting with the very first night, which saw arty post-punk titans perform their confrontational classic Vs.; Sebadoh perform their blossoming-into-legit-songwriters lovelorn break-up album Bubble and Scrape; and finally, revolutionary hip-hop act performed their radical classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

First, lets begin with Burma.

Mission of Burma

The strange thing about Burma to me is that, as I was arriving to Pitchfork and being greeted by the smooth sounds of Curtis Mayfield, I think they're maybe one of the few, if not only, bands in rock music to have their career resuscitated by a book. Out of the many excellent chapters in Michael Azzerad's Our Band Could Be Your Life, the one detailing the rough existence of Mission of Burma, the Boston-based art-noise post-punk group, was the one that piqued my curiosity (as well of that of my like-minded friends) the most. After all, it was the first time I had heard of the group.

Obviously, it wouldn't be the last. Since getting back together in the early 2002, Burma has picked up right where it left off, issuing out two stellar comeback albums: 2004's OnOFFon and 2006's The Oblierati. Incredibly, those are only their second and third full-length albums. Their debut LP, Vs., was the first record that was the center of attention for the first night of Pitchfork 2008.

Sadly, for a band that had played the festival two years early for a packed audience, there were a scant amount of people at the start of the performance. Thankfully, that would change over the course of the night, and the vast amount of people who would trickle in during Burma's performance were treated to a mammoth wall of noise and melody. And, from note one, listeners could immediately tell how colossally influential Burma, and Vs., were, and are, to the punk-rock landscape. With the chaotic caterwaul of instruments, each playing in alternate time signatures, it wasn't hard to ascertain that Burma were the proto-math-rock group.

Indeed, as Burma played more and more songs from their record, it was easier and easier to tell where, and how, subsequent groups cribbed their stylistic tendencies from Burma. (Speaking of tendencies, albeit ones closer to self-mutilation, singer Roger Miller's quotation of "Institutionalized"? Awesome).

Essentially, the style cribs go like this: alternate time-signatures with screaming on top = Shellac. (Although Steve Albini is such a force of personality that Shellac hardly deserve to be declared rip-offs). Group sing-yells over punk-rock anthems = Fugazi. (Although Ian McKaye and company absolutely deserve credit for adding golden-age-of-hip-hop style call-and-responses to the mix). Also, there's the songs. My god, the songs. While the night for Burma ("Welcome to the Burmadome!") would begin in free-form musical anarchy, as opposed to that controlled musical anarchy that we all know and love, the band drifted more toward conventional style of songwriting on the album. But not too conventional. Even though Vs. contains none of their "hits" ("Academy Fight Song", "That's When I Reach For My Revolver"), the album shows how tight and taut Burma can be with their lockstep variation of melodic hardcore.

The band's stumbling, punchdrunk variation of punk-rock is distinctive for two reasons: the heavy emphasis on three-downbeats in a row, which gives the band a unique feel similar to a boxer stumbling after being delivered a heavy blow, but still maintaining his ground. The second is (bassist name) approach to playing bass. He uses double-stops (a two-note chord; doesn't have to necessarily be powerful in nature) and a tone that's heavy on the treble. This, I feel, is the source of a lot of the angst in Burma songs. It's a sound that's both powerful and quaking with fear. While Vs. becomes more reflective and introspective on its second side, the band didn't lose any of its intensity as a live act, nor its stinging sense of humor. (After one particularly impressive display of lung power, drummer _ dryly stated "Very well-expressed, Mr. Miller"). Also, the group showed a true sense of humility, stating that the crowd knew the record better than they did after the band began the wrong song. While Vs. may be at times difficult and impenitrible, anyone experiencing the album for the first time couldn't have gotten a better introduction from a band that, two-decades after its inception, is just hitting its stride. Mission of Burma are proof that not only do American lives have second acts, but that those acts can be even better than the first. Suck it long and hard, F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Speaking of suck, here's an exchange between my girlfriend and me that aptly sums up both of our feelings regarding Sebadoh's hap-hazard and ramshackle performance of their transitional LP Bubble and Scrape:

Me: "Wait, did that song just end?"
GF (exasperated sigh): "Did it ever begin?"

While the material performed certainly had its merits, the way it was performed was rather annoying. I'm all for a band performing on stage after however-many-years to enjoy themselves, but being a spectator at the trio's recital of Bubble and Scrape was like being a third wheel. Lou Barlow looked like he was having fun, and god bless him for it, but would it have killed Sebadoh just to sped things up a bit? To his credit, Barlow and company looked like they were enjoying themselves. I just wished I could say the same of the audience at times.

For those of you who may not know, Sebadoh was former Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow's side project, an outlet for his songs when J. Mascis became too dominant in the creative process. Once Barlow got the proverbial pink ship from Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh became his main gig. Because of the intentional, warts-and-all minimalism of the early Sebadoh recordings such as The Freed Man and Weed and Forestin', Sebadoh, like Pavement, are considered pioneers of a sub-genre of indie-rock called lo-fi. I imagine that anyone reading this blog knows what that term is, but I present these facts to get to a larger point. Quick, what is the defining characteristic of lo-fi? Intimacy. And what quality of character is least likely to be found in a sea of 40-80,000 people? You guessed it. Frank Stallone Intimacy.

So, instead of pondering how and where Bubble and Scrape served as a transitional album to their arguable pinnacle Bakesale, a record that found the band's songwriting at its most focused and direct, we got to see three dudes fucking around on a stage. Which can have its charms, on a very, very small scale. But on at platform that sees you in a antagonistically musical sandwich between Mission of Burma and Public Enemy, one couldn't but feel like the audience was a massive third wheel. Amongst Barlow's endless stage banter included an impromptu, hilariously off-key rendition of Tom Petty's "The Waiting" and changes in equipment that derailed any momentum the show would have had. Still, tracks like "Fantastic Disaster" showed what Sebadoh were capable of when they held our attention.

Public Enemy

Finally, the performance of the night, if not the entire festival. After a brief, somewhat bizarre, opening set from PE's legendary DJ Duo The Bomb Squad consisting of dub-reggae beats (the utter opposite of their uptempo work which help make It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back a legendary and important work), PE clumsily took the stage. As you've no doubt read already, Flavor Flav was late to the performance. And yet, he still could be heard coming from the speakers. And you know what that means. Flavor Flav is a spectre haunting the powers of old music, and his new sitcom, Under One Roof, is his manifesto.

Except not. One of the bizarre low-lights out of an otherwise stellar and incendiary performance, Flavor Flav plugged his sitcom to an audience of materialistically anti-materialistic hipsters. Needless to say, Flav responded with a tirade that made me think about what would happen if Tracy Morgan's character from 30 Rock had been conceived as an aging rapper. "You call your wife 'Boo', you don't boo me." Later on, Flav brought out his godson, who looked absolutely thriillllleed (He hates it when Uncle Chuck talks about how the revolution will not be televised!). This despite the fact that Flavor Flav displayed no sense of self-awareness at all while playing the anti-television scold on "She Watch Channel Zero!". Flav blind to his own sad irony, Baby". Flav blind.

And yet, Public Enemy's performance was so incredible, despite flaws like that, and the constant passive-aggression insistence that they didn't lyp-synch (medoths think Flav protest too much, especially on "Show 'Em What You Got"), that I wanted to take it out behind a middle school and get it pregnant. 20 years after their creation, in a political climate that sees one branch of government mindlessly help another branch to essentially become a Monarchy (but hey, enjoy those last six, Dub), Public Enemy's furious brand of leftist militant anthems for the intelligently angry were more relevant than ever. While "Bring The Noise" stumbled a bit, and the choreographed intro to "Don't Believe The Hype" was awkwardly choreographed, Chuck D and Company (DJ Lord, Flav, D, and a guitar-bass-drums back-up band), "Caught, Can We Get A Witness", "Cold Lampin' With Flava" (the fascinating back-story behind the track was another Saturday highlight), and "Rebel Without A Pause" were little blasts of revolutionary party anthems that enlightened you and made you get down with your bad self. The booming-bass, uptempo siren-laded songs were a cathartic release in the taut anxiety of the Bush-era. After the last Millions song was performed, PE launched into a multitude of past hits, including well-known hits like "911 is a Joke" and "Can't Truss It", that continued to send the gala of radicalism well past the intended curfew. After deftly slipping a surprisingly strong new song, the funk-and-soul fusion of "Harder Than You Think", the group closed out on "Fight The Power". I'll just say this: to hear the the "Elvis was a hero to most/but he never meant shit to me" verse live and uncensored was, after an entire evening of off-the-hook hip-hop, the best part of the evening was really saying something. It said, "Even if its messenger looked foolish at times, the message itself will always matter most". Just as long as its not delivered on a sitcom.

(Jonathan Graef)



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