So the phrase "Noise Pop" had slowly entered my musical vernacular over the course of the past couple of years... but wait a minute, rewind: before I get into that I should probably go back a little bit further.
You see, it was some moons ago when I was in college in the mid-nineties, that time when the Counting Crows were all the rage, we were still reeling from the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, Cracker had a huge hit with "Low," Pearl Jam was the biggest band in the world, kids were moshing at the slightest hint of amplification, and the system of global capitalism had yet to collapse.
A friend I met around this period was really into these bands (Pavement, Sebadoh, Sleater-Kinney), whose records I would have thrown out the window into traffic after listening to the first track. However, by this time I was smoking pot and it all sounded groovy in a subtly disappointing way.
My friend's favorite band, Pavement, a group of knit sweater-wearing, white college intellectuals from Stockton, CA, came out with a couple of albums insinuating themselves into households everywhere with the MTV hit, "Cut Your Hair." It goes down as being one of the great MTV coups of all time and the "Buzz Bin" was born. A similar group, the Flaming Lips, scored a hit with "She Don't Use Jelly," and I remember overhearing pissed-off friends whining that they bought the record and most of the songs didn't sound like "the jelly one."
"Noise Pop" had arrived, and being a hip, music-savant I couldn't resist. So I started listening to the musical language of those who didn't relate to the testosterone-filled stadium angst of Eddie Vedder, or the hair extensions of Adam Duritz, those troubled at the very site of drunk college kids moshing to "Mr. Jones," who hated Blind Melon, and were proud that they would never be able to dance or play basketball.
So I got sucked in. I honestly liked Pearl Jam and some other pop music, but I was intrigued by the complete disregard and inventive abandon with which artists like Steven Malkmus of Pavement threw out the rules of rock music, creating something new and evil-cool. Although there was actually a tradition to this madness, an evolutionary procession to this musical state. From bands like Pere Ubu and Television in the seventies to Sonic Youth in the eighties, it was new and refreshing to me. My ears needed music to destroy the niceties of "modern rock" radio, and Pavement did it for me. So this is where we begin, in a crappy little apartment in Davis, CA amidst a constant flow of intellectual and drug experimentation, I added the likes of Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, and the Flaming Lips to my growing interest in musical idioms and expression. So I picked up a guitar and learned how to play a "D chord" without the root, out of tune and somewhere else.
A few years later I found myself at the Bottom of the Hill, squished into a sweaty mass of cigarette and alcohol odor waiting for the Minus 5 to take the stage at the 2001 Noise Pop festival. The Minus 5, the brainchild of Scott McCaughey (touring member of REM) with REM's Peter Buck on bass, played a bit tepid and cautious. However, things got a little dicier and definitely more interesting when Scott's alter ego, Mr. McDrunk, emerged from backstage after the Minus 5 set, tequila bottle in hand, to perform with his other band, the Young Fresh Fellows. What followed was a drunken orgy of Americana that included fellow REMer Mike Mills joining for the closing singalong, his big smile of Appalachian green-teeth looking like a murky swamp in the stage lights. I vowed from that night forward, whenever I was in the Bay Area and the Noise Pop festival was happening, I would be there.
So 2003 rolls around and here I am covering this year's Noise Pop festival for JamBase. Along with the standard fare of disaffected, post-punk, post-pop, neo-jazz, and electronica concerts, this year's festival also featured screenings of films on Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, Sonic Youth, and The Pixies at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There was the Noise Pop Educational Series, music business seminars taught by professionals like manager Bonnie Simmons (Cake), Roddy Bottum (Imperial Teen) and Glenn Brown (Creative Commons), and they even had an Entertainment Law Summit at Hastings taught by the Talking Head's Jerry Harrison, System of a Down attorney, Jonathan Blaufarb, and others. One wonders if Jerry Harrison lectured on "how to use the name of the big rock band you used to be in without the guy who wrote and sang all of the songs."
On Tuesday, February 25th I strolled up to Bimbo's 365 Club after a horrendous search for parking and a dreadfully long day of circum-navigating the entire Bay Area by car, only to see the man of the evening, Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, in front of the building with yes, you guessed it, one of his dad’s brown I-Zod sweaters on.
Stephen Malkmus produced much of the material he wrote in post-Pavement limbo on his first solo album, released over a year ago. I pretty much missed the boat on that record and waited on shore 'til the next one came around. I read in the Wire that the new Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks album, Pig Lib, due March 18th, is astute and austere, and up to the English post-punk standard. [Author’s note: for those of you who don’t already know, it was the English that started the recycled sweater wearing trend.] I looked forward to listening to the Jicks live, but didn’t invest much anticipation in the show. I've seen Pavement play like a methadone clinic and I've seen them perform one of the fiercest, balls-out rock jams ever.
Tonight the Jicks, a quartet, were very loose and relaxed and played the new, evolved and well thought-out songs from Pig Lib. Ranging from spacey, early Pink Floyd jams to intricate, off-kilter time signatures that rolled like Legos on square wheels, modest Pavement-like singalongs to a well-oiled VW bus firing on all four cylinders, they kept things interesting. Where Pavement tended to sink in the mud of anti-theory anarchy, the Jicks played with the freedom to dip in and out of rock music convention. Vocal harmonies between Malkmus and his female bassist were tangerine and the instrumentals soared. By all measures it was a good show and I went home satisfied, looking Cat Power, feeling California.
The following night I stumbled into a parking spot near Bay Street and Chestnut, elated by the coincidentally short and direct walking route to Bimbo's. I took one last breath of the urine-stained air of North Beach before walking through the door during the opener, Film School, my foot cautiously tapping to the soundtrack of a lunar landing. Something about the name, Film School, kind of bothered me in a pretentious "art school" way, so I pretended not to like them that much. But they are actually quite good. The best thing about festivals, and the birthright of their organizers, is the unknown quantity - to showcase bands hovering below the scope of recognition, my favorite discovery coming tonight before Cat Power.
I heard the first measures of the music in the bar, and I followed the sound into the main room. This guy sucking down a Budweiser and taking drags off his cigarette emerged from behind the darkness of the stage, alone amidst a lush and moody soundtrack, a cross between DJ Shadow and Burt Bacharach. He started singing this amazing song. His lyrics, a cross between Walt Whitman and Neil Young, provided glimpses of heartbreak and images of a beer-drinking wanderer observing and absorbing the fruited plains of humanity. Imagine Tom Joad, a traveling troubadour in the 21st Century, and you get the road chronicles of Eric Bachmann. Formerly of the Archers of Loaf and now with Crooked Fingers, Eric finger-picked his acoustic guitar for most of the set and sang all by his lonesome, with his rich tenor voice captivating the audience for a good forty-five minutes. Finally, a Neil Diamond singing heartland stories for the thirty-something ungeneration.
The last time I saw Cat Power, at All Tomorrow's Parties in LA, she single-handedly pissed off at least a couple of thousand people over the course of twenty minutes. Emotions went from eagerness to shock and awe, and then dismay, quicker than a riot at a Guns 'n' Roses concert. She opened her first song and only got a couple stanzas through the first verse before stopping and detailing how she broke her finger playing basketball a couple of weeks ago. I don’t recall her making it all the way through one song, and while intrigued by her ability and audacity to pull off such a charade, I ended up bailing out of the room looking for Eddie Vedder's ukulele.
Cat Power was better behaved this evening at Bimbo’s, although her performance wasn’t without her passive-aggressive bitching. The band, including a violin/guitar/keyboardist, a drummer and bassist, created the perfect mood music for Cat Power’s laconic, sexy and airy voice to float effortlessly over. Where PJ Harvey’s band occupies the Howlin' Wolf sphere of the post-blues, Cat Power and company evoke memories of John Lee Hooker, far more relaxed and rolling. The harmonies between Cat Power and the multi-instrumentalist girl were lush and well rounded; imagine Notorious’ Ingrid Bergman singing with Betty Boop. The drummer was fluid, avoiding the backbeat, preferring subtle fills and textures while creating space and building up to exploding, manic tom tom runs. The music: a cross between Billie Holliday and a synthless Leonard Cohen, with the adventure and alchemic nature of modern Tom Waits compositions. Beautiful and dreamy. Her songs like a wave goodbye to someone you love and will never see again.
Thursday night, a reunited Camper Van Beethoven took to the Bimbo’s stage. My Uncle has a Camper record and I knew that David Lowery, the chief Cracker, is the main songwriter in this camp, and I really appreciated his lyrical fixation with monkeys on Cracker’s latest record, Forever. At this point my biorhythms were all over the place, a piece of me in Berkeley, my heart in Santa Clara, my physical being in North Beach, and a viral invasion taking place within. However, Camper kept me out of my seat, far more diverse from a musical standpoint than Cracker.
Where Cracker is confined to a standard rock formula, Camper is a schizophrenic marvel. They jump from gypsy-like polka to klezmer, ska and reggae to dub, consistently informing the witty and interesting rock 'n' roll stories David Lowery wrote in Southern California almost two decades ago. They started their set with some accordion-heavy polka, which made me feel like I was stuck in the back of a Ryder truck with John Candy, but the band soon comforted my uneasiness with “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac,” a romp through the Russian countryside, Americana style.
After a fitting tribute to the fallen Mr. Rogers, the bassist proclaiming, “Wouldn’t it be a better world with Mr. Rogers as President instead of George Bush,” the band hit stride with an anthemic performance of Fleetwood Mac’s "Tusk." This was the moment the band truly showed its hand. Lowery and violinist Jonathan Segel employed laptop sampling and sound effects to create an eerie and threatening sonic environment. The dynamics ranged from haunting silence to exploding salvos of Led Zeppelin bombast. It totally rocked and they are a great band.
My final day with Noise Pop came on Sunday. I was completely sick, my head felt like two hot-air balloons. Once again I found myself at Bimbo's, this time very early at 8pm, naked and exposed to the opening selections of the Noise Pop curators. The first band, The Roots of Orchus, laid down an electric storm in its opening number with two bassists, a drummer/turntablist and someone manning a Moog.
Roots of Orchus is hip-hop for suburban high schoolers out to lunch listening to their John Coltrane records. The band employed cool and demure atmospheric samples, pedal tones, hip-hop beats, vintage keyboard sounds, and DJ scratches in cooking up a minimalist masterpiece. It's the perfect soundtrack for a picnic on the green grass at the Guggenheim overlooking the city of Los Angeles, watching the sun set on the West.
Luck isn't always at hand, and during the opening moments the second band had my hands franticly searching my narrow pockets for earplugs to protect me from the aural onslaught of Erasure-sounding keyboards. I wasn't alone, as my friend was moving for the plugs in unison with me. These cats got a little bit better, but reinforced a common law of understanding pioneered by the band Sparta: that if band members are advertised as "formerly of...(a better band)," they probably suck.
Tortoise finally came on the stage and dug right into the music. Spending few precious moments switching instrument stations (they had three sets of vibes, two keyboard stations, a couple of guitars/basses, and two drum kits to attract the five gentlemen), Tortoise was all about business, playing with a fierce dedication and intense fervor. Always atmospheric: think of people watching in an airport terminal, the musicians communicating with total clarity and a unique vision. Brian Eno-esque excursions and strange minor chord themes, cool-jazz guitar runs and dual-drum set backbeats. Tortoise sketches a new age of invention and creation. I think Nels Cline described this school of music best, writing, "Now that jazz is dead and punk means nothing, hear we be." The same holds true for Tortoise, and thank god for these musicians because without them we would be stuck listening to the past in a Jacuzzi.
This new evolution in music has cornered a very amorphous creature in the Noise Pop arena. The crowd, an interesting mix of something I had never seen before: goths, punks, post-punks, working class jazz lovers, and avant gard heads collided with such excitement and nihilism it caught Tortoise off-guard. Guys were screaming and shouting out requests like they were at a rock show, and there really was no difference, save that one guy who always has to be the asshole and shout out "Freebird.” Oh, and then there was the guy a hundred feet from the stage who decided he was going to draw the line with cutters, giving me dirty looks and trying to stonewall me as I positioned to take my crappy photographs. I love Tortoise, but this thing was out of hand. Near the end of the night one of the band members stopped short of starting the next song to add, “This isn’t a rock show," but no one listened. You take away the barrier between performer and audience, as is the case in a small venue, and everyone wants to be the star.
Tortoise are like The Beatles, but instead of teeny bopper girls crying and slobbering over themselves, music nerds of all dispositions are being driven to odd emotional territory and mental entropy over this music. But like I said before, better them than Najee. The Tortoise show was an anthemic ending and endemic to the entire week of Noise Pop: always challenging and fearless, sometimes scary, but always worth the risk.
Words and images by The Bob
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