Noise Pop | 02.23-02.28 | San Francisco

Words by: Justin Gillett | Images by: Eric Lawson

Noise Pop 2010 :: 02.23.10-02.28.10 :: San Francisco, CA

Har Mar Superstar :: Noise Pop 2010
If I didn't live in San Francisco there's a good possibility I wouldn't know what the hell Noise Pop is. The small(er) festival is not nearly as big as South by Southwest or Montreal Pop, but it features a typically strong lineup of indie bands and is held over a week at various music venues around the city. Noise Pop doesn't draw huge names, but for music connoisseurs living in the City by the Bay it provides an easy opportunity to see a bunch of good bands in a short amount of time during a lull in festival season.

Celebrating its 18th year, Noise Pop 2010 hosted some impressive acts like The Dodos, Yoko Ono, John Vanderslice, Four Tet, Magnetic Fields and Memory Tapes playing between February 23 and March 1 at some of the city's best music venues. What follows is a recap of one writer's journey through Noise Pop.

Night 1 | February 23 | Bender's
The festival started off in classic fashion with an official "opening night party" that featured an open bar and a free Har Mar Superstar show. Admittance was only granted to individuals who made RSVP arrangements via festival organizers, but starting off the week with a night of drunken revelry felt extremely appropriate.

When Har Mar vocalist Sean Tillmann – who's primarily known for singing in his skivvies - came on at around 6:30 p.m. it was a slight relief to see him garbed in a full set of clothes. Though some might find it, um, interesting to watch an overweight balding man sing to '70s style quasi-funk, I still found it more enjoyable to watch the music performed with the singer still dressed - call me old fashioned. It was Har Mar's third time playing an opening night party at Noise Pop and the band's R&B style grooves set to rap-esque vocal rhyming went over fairly well with the boozed-up crowd.

When Tillman did inevitably take off his clothes, the audience seemed to dig the act and even cheered when he shed his breeches. Though the crowd was stoked to see Tillmann behaving in true fashion, I felt the lead singer's actions only served as a gimmick and cheapened the music. By the time Tillman was down to his constrictive underwear, I had prepared myself for the impending flesh exhibition so it wasn't really that big of a deal, but by the end of the band's performance I had seen enough.

Night 2 | February 24 | Cafe du Nord

Best Coast :: Noise Pop 2010
Best Coast is a fairly new L.A.-based lo-fi surf rock act and despite not having released an LP yet, the band has become one of the more talked about acts of 2010. Helmed by singer-songwriter Bethany Cosentino, Best Coast arrives on the music scene at a perfect time – during indie rock's infatuation with jangly, throwback pop - and has managed to receive a fair amount of press attention recently for its vintage beach tunes.

Cosentino's power lies in her enduring songwriting and NOT in her vapid guitar playing, but Best Coast proved with its simple, no frills live show that it's undoubtedly a band to track in the near future. Playing with a bassist and a drummer who relied heavily upon Ringo Starr style snare hits, Cosentino seemed slightly nervous during the beginning of her set. As the group played on, Cosentino gained more confidence after the three musicians really started to gel.

Shortly after Best Coast vacated the stage, the Austin, Texas-based garage rock trio Harlem stumbled out and took positions behind their respective instruments. As the band shouted slurred profanities at the crowd, it was quickly made apparent that all three guys in the band were totally trashed - not just buzzed but certifiably shit-faced.

During the set, the band dabbled in various musical avenues (lo-fi rock, proto-punk and surf rock) but the act's unbridled energy, or possibly drunken courage, was clearly the driving force behind the music. The trio was recently picked up by the seminal indie label Matador, and after seeing Harlem's unpolished set one can only hope that the band will grow into its own under the label's guidance.

Night 3 | February 25 | Bottom of the Hill

Far :: Noise Pop 2010
Not being a fan of emo music in the least bit, I found myself in a precarious position after showing up at Bottom of the Hill for Far's Noise Pop performance. I was talked into going to the show by a friend of mine, who said the Sacramento band hadn't played in 13 years and this reunion show would undoubtedly prove memorable. I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to diversify my musical palette, although immediately after I walked into the venue and heard opening act Stomacher, I knew it'd be difficult to draw any semblance of enjoyment out of the evening's music. But with my comrade egging me on and telling me the reach of Far's influence, I gave the group a respectful listen (even if I hate all the bands that apparently influenced them).

Shortly after taking the stage, Far's lead singer Jonah Matranga (who is considered somewhat of a messiah amongst fans) declared that the band is going to release an album of new material in May. He then immediately told the audience the group was not ready to play any of the new material quite yet. For some reason this got the crowd fairly excited and as the band lurched into its next song (apparently a fan favorite) a good amount of the audience started singing the tune's lyrics nearly as loud as Matranga. This exhibition was god awfully annoying, and though some, like my friend, were giddy like school children during the show, I just couldn't dig it. To each his own, I suppose.

Night 4 | February 26 | The Independent
One of the nice things about Noise Pop is organizers tend to do a good job of clumping similar acts together, so opening bands tend to sound somewhat like the headliner. While night three had been a disappointing emo-centric affair, night four would prove to be a take no prisoners electro dance party featuring Rainbow Arabia, Nathan Fake and Four Tet.

Four Tet :: Noise Pop 2010
The L.A.-based electronic duo Rainbow Arabia, consisting of husband/wife team Danny and Tiffany Preston, incorporated guitar, drum pads and synthesizers with a computer generated sound to create a distinguished blend of lilting electro pop. While the majority of sound programming was left up to Danny, Tiffany added unique female vocals to contribute a distinctly human quality to the mechanized music. As I caroused around the venue I could hear several keen listeners say, "Damn, this band sounds a lot like The Knife," and that is a very apt description.

When Nathan Fake took the stage, it seemed like there were a lot of people who didn't know what to expect. The English producer has made a fairly big splash for himself in his home country, but across the pond in the U.S. he's but a ripple in the vast State Side electro scene. As he tore through his set I couldn't help but note how polished and clear his progressive house beats sounded. Some producers pack their tracks with so many layers that it sounds sloppy (read: Bassnectar), but Fake was intent on making his sonic creations sound as crisp and refined as possible. Fake played a good amount of material from his 2006 debut Drowning in a Sea of Love, and did an excellent job of warming up the stage for fellow Brit Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet.

With all the critical praise Hebden has received for his newest album, There is Love in You, over the past few months it has really made me think why this guy gets SO much attention. Hebden is an extremely talented electronic composer and his new album is a well-crafted piece of art, but there are several other electro pioneers like Eliot Lipp and edIT who get completely snubbed by most media. Luckily, Hebden performed like he had something to prove and managed to put on an engaging show despite not being too engaging visually. While it has become quite popular for electronic artists to incorporate some sort of live instrumentation into their show, Hebden seemed content to just perform rather stoically and let the music do its thing.

Even though Hebden was a bit of a lurid performer, it didn't inhibit the crowd from getting down with the infectious acid house style beats. Constantly layering repetitive samples on top of consistent bass thumps, Hebden created a few epic orchestrations during his set and demonstrated that he isn't hindered by the confines of preprogrammed noise produced by machines.

Night 5 | February 27 | Bottom of the Hill

The Watson Twins :: Noise Pop 2010
Saturday was another amazing night of music for Noise Pop. The Magnetic Fields were playing at the regal Fox Theater in Oakland, !!! was playing with local boys Maus Haus at the dance floor friendly Mezzanine, and S.F. songstress Thao Nguyen was playing a special show with Mirah at the intimate Swedish American Hall. But my evening's plans were made weeks before when Dayve Hawk's Memory Tapes were announced to play their first San Francisco show at the Bottom of the Hill. The Philadelphia-based group's 2009 debut LP, Seek Magic, was one of the more memorable albums to emerge out of last summer's burgeoning chill wave movement and it helped cement Hawk's reputation as one of the genre's innovators.

Loquat, Birds & Batteries and Letting Up Despite Great Faults opened up the show, but all three acts were dull and not interesting in the least bit. It was actually quite enjoyable to watch the bands and talk about them as they struggled to capture the crowd's admiration.

After Hawk and his touring drummer Matt Maraldo took the stage for their Memory Tapes set, it was shocking how well put together the duo's sound was. Hawk has created vintage sounding electronic music under the related monikers Weird Tapes, Memory Cassettes AND Memory Tapes, but the Memory Tapes incarnation is relatively new – the group actually played its first-ever show earlier in February. After hearing well polished cuts like "Stop Talking" and "Green Knight," I expected the show to continue on until all the songs off the act's LP were played. Unfortunately, Hawk was rumored to be feeling ill and after just 25 minutes, both performers exited the stage and didn't play an encore.

Night 6 | February 28 | Bimbo's 365 Club

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros :: Noise Pop 2010
Noise Pop wrapped up its week-long San Francisco festivities in grand fashion with the help of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and The Watson Twins during an official "closing show" at Bimbo's 365 Club. Though it was slightly disheartening to know that this would be the last show of the festival, the sold out concert gave revelers an opportunity to send-off Noise Pop in style.

The Watson Twins – an L.A. folk-pop group comprised of Chandra and Leigh Watson - helped open up the show with distinct female harmonies and memorable choruses. Though the folk darlings' analogous vocal pipes are clearly the driving force behind the band, the impassioned playing of the four backing musicians nearly eclipsed the sisters. During the end of one song, the bassist, keyboardist, drummer and guitarist fell into a rousing outro jam that seemed to offset the sisters' ringleader style stage presence. The occasional instrumental jams were actually my favorite part of the group's show, and even though the twins' vocals were slightly charming, their voices didn't have much resonance and seemed to loose the attention of the crowd fairly quickly.

After rising to prominence with power pop group Ima Robot, singer-songwriter Alex Ebert pursued a decidedly different music style with his latest endeavor, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. His two groups sound drastically discordant from one another, and with The Magnetic Zeros Ebert has changed his ethos to sound like some late '60s Topanga Canyon folk rocker. During his Noise Pop set, Ebert paraded around the stage and looked like some 21st century hippie messiah as his band cranked out freak folk style grooves. For his role as leader of the multi-instrumentalist musical ensemble, Ebert has adopted a slightly over-the-top stage persona, and even though it seemed slightly contrived, it managed to go over well with the audience, many of who seemed to be genuinely enjoying the performance.

Despite Ebert coming off like a two-bit version of Devendra Banhart, his vocal companion Jade Castrinos really shone and helped provide a few layers of much needed professionalism to the group's music. With tin-pan alley style drum beats and occasional Latin horn flourishes, other members of the 13 member collective really rose to the occasion - even though it was often hard to pay attention to these musicians due to Ebert's "look at me, look at me" stage presence. By using some unusual instruments like an accordion and ukulele, these artists were able to stand out and leave their sonic stamp on the music. As the band reached the end of its set with fan favorite "Home," both the band and the crowd were jumping and cheering in unison to the anthem-like lyrics. The song provided a fitting end to the show and served as a nice capstone for the epic week-long festival.

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