Going into this weekend, Friday's lineup was the least exciting for me. I knew very little about folkies Sharon Van Etten and The Tallest Man On Earth, and I cared increasingly little about headliners Modest Mouse and Broken Social Scene, two indie rock institutions past their prime. And while I was geeked for another go-round with Liars and curious about underground rap impresario El-P, I was highly skeptical of Swedish pop singer Robyn, the 90s one-hit wonder whose more recent work has become a cause celebre among American music critics.
Much of the day panned out how I thought it would, but there several surprises kept things interesting. And while I expect much more out of these next two days, Friday had enough glorious moments that I'm glad I showed up.
For instance: Robyn totally and completely won me over. I had serious doubts about whether she could set herself apart — there are lots of weird, talented pop singers working today — or whether she would fit on a schedule that had her slotted between Liars and Broken Social Scene. To my surprise and delight, she was hands down the highlight of day one.
Robyn stalked the stage like a charismatic little sprite, exuding star power as she nailed her notes and busted out dance moves that would be obnoxious coming from a lesser talent. Her band, including two drummers and two synth players, wore matching all-white attire that hilariously played into the stereotype of what a Swedish pop star's backing band should look like. But more importantly, the music was incredible. She started with some fun, flighty numbers and eventually built to dark, expansive dance floor bangers that left me feeling like I was seeing LCD Soundsystem (which, of course, is awesome).
That wasn't the first time LCD came to mind yesterday. While watching El-P rock a mini keyboard during an instrumental interlude, it struck me that he was James Murphy before James Murphy was James Murphy — an underground tastemaker with an influential label and loads of talent as a performer and producer. Plus, he just sort of looked like James Murphy up there.
El-P's set was a close second on the highlights list. He mixed live instrumentation with a DJ, and the results were strange, diverse and stimulating, even if the tone was a little dark for 4:30 p.m. His talents as an MC were on display, not least during an a cappella freestyle that doubled as a leftist rant. But the music was what kept me bugging out. Sonically, this man is crazy.
A few more thoughts on Friday at Pitchfork:
•Liars reminded me why I have a band crush on them, even if their snarling art punk didn't hit quite as hard as at South by Southwest. Angus Andrew, boasting a Men At Work T-shirt and nylon short shorts, remains a rock and roll deity.
•Broken Social Scene was plagued by a perilously quiet mix — especially shocking for a band with so many instruments on stage. Despite solid playing from this crew (who are more and more feeling like the indie rock Fleetwood Mac, for better or worse), their set felt like a dim imitation of real life, which is no good when you're
•The pair of folk artists that opened the day were mildly enjoyable. It's honestly hard for me to remember what Sharon Van Etten sounded like, though I remember thinking it was rather morose for this setting. Being the first act of the day, I cut her some slack, but she was quickly wiped from my brain by The Tallest Man On Earth, a handsome, Dylan-obsessed young Swedish strummer who could hit it big with the right marketing. His was a more pleasant introduction to the weekend. Nothing spectacular from him, but he certainly has a way with melody.
•I was hoping Modest Mouse would cater to the hipster-heavy audience and dig significantly into their back catalog, and a jaw-dropping extended rendition of "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" to open the set seemed to confirm my suspicions. Then they rattled off countless forgettable newer songs that reminded me this is a shadow of the Modest Mouse I used to love. Isaac Brock seems light he's lost some weight, so at least there's that.
•Apparently, you aren't cool unless you have two drummers. Everyone from Liars to Robyn to Modest Mouse was rocking multiple percussionists Friday.
A quick smattering of photos:
The Tallest Man On Earth