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Sharp Darts: Indie Rock's Not Dead

Pitchfork's high points prove there's hope yet.

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The first night of last weekend's Pitchfork Music Festival was dedicated to that most archetypal indie-rock pastime, the worship of the influential album. Slint played Spiderland, GZA did Liquid Swords, and Sonic Youth performed Daydream Nation--or, as I heard it referred to moments before the set, "Oh. My. God. Daydream Nation." The presence of a Wu-Tang veteran alongside two canonical alt-rock acts was welcome evidence that indie rock has lowered its drawbridge to admit something besides dudes with guitars. Pitchfork Media exerts a near total hegemony over the business of indie tastemaking, and the festival lineup is a decent snapshot of what the site's staffers endorse. This year they were pushing all kinds of stuff, not just the by-the-book indie rock everybody assumes they love.

I showed up Saturday afternoon in time to catch powerhouse free-jazz bassist William Parker on the side stage with his quartet. At first I thought the crowd--which never would've fit into any venue in town that'd book Parker--was waiting around to catch Beach House, who were playing next, or just looking for something to drown out Voxtrot. I still don't believe that so many people at Pitchfork were bona fide Parker fans--the same quartet played the Empty Bottle this spring to an audience that didn't even fill the club. But even assuming the crowd was loaded with jazz newbies, they were cool with having their boundaries pushed: when saxophonist Rob Brown took off on a riptastic solo, they howled in appreciation. Probably the strangest and most satisfying experience I had at the festival was standing next to two preteen skate rats who were intently watching the jazzers blow in the blazing heat.

The downside of Pitchfork's willingness to branch out, both online and in festival bookings, is that sometimes it comes off like dilettantism. Pitchfork tends to ignore heavy music, so the main-stage set by Mastodon--one of the few metal bands to attract its attention--felt like a token. The crowd's reaction was divided: I saw lots of people throwing devil horns, but the further you got from the stage, the more often it seemed like the gesture needed air quotes around it. Back on the outer rim, among the blanket sitters, I heard someone say, "I don't think indie rockers do mosh pits." And indeed from way back there the only sign of the knot of Mastodon faithful scuffling and trying to crowd surf up by the barrier was the occasional puff of dust rising into the air.

Right now the most dilettantish act in the indie world is probably Girl Talk, aka producer and DJ Gregg Gillis, and unfortunately he's riding a big thumbs-up from Pitchfork. Gillis is the current champion of the mash-up, and his admixtures of hip-hop and rock have earned him a sweatily enthusiastic following--at his side-stage set, people climbed trees and flooded the stage and the VIP area to get closer to the action. Ideally mash-ups capitalize on the strengths of their source material, complementing rap's rhythmic play with rock's dynamics and melody, but Gillis's blends don't do any favors to either genre--if anything they're less than the sums of their parts, planted squarely in the most mediocre common ground. And because he hardly ever challenges his audience by straying from instantly recognizable hits--Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)"--he ends up sounding like a wedding DJ hopped up on editing software. Populism is one thing; what he does is more like pandering.

For the most part, though, the embrace of hip-hop--and not just boho-friendly backpacker stuff approved for use by people who don't otherwise listen to hip-hop--has been a good thing for indie rockers in general and Pitchfork in particular. Of all the acts at the festival, Clipse ranked highest on Pitchfork's best-albums-of-2006 list, and their set presented the unlikely spectacle of thousands of artsy middle-class white kids gleefully cheering for two thug-posturing crack poets whose DJ punctuated their set with sampled gun claps. Malice and Pusha T worked mix-tape material and deep album cuts just as well as the big singles from their recent Hell Hath No Fury, and the crowd kept up the whole way, always knowing what to say when and responding eagerly to the MCs' prompts. Only De La Soul, whose Sunday-night set resuscitated an audience worn down by more than two days of music, got more people to sing along.

All this variety was a great relief, in no small part because indie rock, Pitchfork's first love, has become something of a punch line--it may once have been a revolutionary alternative to the mainstream, but now it's little more than a different store to shop at. And there was some weak-sauce generic stuff at the festival, including the milquetoast Voxtrot and former Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus, who sounded monumentally indifferent--it's like he's gone from actually playing groundbreaking indie rock to merely representing the idea that playing groundbreaking indie rock was once possible. Fortunately those low points were easy to overlook in light of revelatory sets from Cat Power and Of Montreal--they both proved that overemotional people with big record collections can still make compelling music.

Over the past year Chan Marshall has transformed herself from a trembling wreck into an actual front woman. Backed by a flawless band that included Dirty Three drummer Jim White, Jon Spencer guitarist Judah Bauer, and Delta 72 front man Greg Foreman on keys, she prowled the stage, pushing herself out front to stand triumphantly on the monitor cabinets, then curling into a hunch--you could see her fighting to overcome her fears, and it was even more exciting to see her beat them than it used to be to wait around and see if her set would unravel into a breakdown. Most of her songs are just her tremulous, breathy voice atop forlorn soul arrangements, but her performance was electrifying.

Of Montreal front man Kevin Barnes came up in the mid-90s as part of the Elephant 6 collective, and his band still works those angles, twisting up twee pop in whacked-out psychedelia. But on the recent Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, which made up the bulk of their Pitchfork set, Of Montreal demonstrate how their sound has evolved since Elephant 6's heyday, adding fey glam rock and throbbing synthetic electro to the mix. Barnes's lyrics recount a descent into depression and mental illness, and the band's stage show included a procession of surreal extras, including a Darth Vader with gold detailing and a dude in what looked like inflatable blue coveralls whose giant fake head was covered in balloons, each one decorated with a cutout of Barnes's face. Barnes himself wore a black corset and thigh-high fishnets for part of the set, and the guitarist had a huge pair of feathery pink wings sprouting from his back--overall the performance had a demented operatic vibe, but at the same time it felt disconcertingly personal, like reading someone's dream journal.

Despite all the clear connections between Of Montreal's music and the hot underground shit of a decade ago, it's more satisfying today than it would've been back then. It's easy to rip on indie rock for what it's become. It's easy to turn your back on it and chase the next thing, the next flavor of beat slinger or street rapper, to occupy a month or two of your time. So it means that much more when a band can make you turn around and wonder, however briefly, if it's really a good idea to leave it behind.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Top: Of Montreal, Mastodon. Bottom: Cat Power, fans during Clipse's set. photos by Marty Perez.

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