Bonnaroo: Day 4 (Sunday)

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On the last day of Bonnaroo, I awoke on an entirely different planet. The mystical Swedish group Goat beamed me up with their otherworldly performance. Their sound meets somewhere between psych rock and afro-beat, and their outfits range from modern ninjas to hippie shamans. The band itself claims to be one of many incarnations of a musical tradition they say started in their alleged voodoo-worshiping hometown of Korpilombo, Sweden. Whether or not those allegations are fact, fiction or somewhere in between, their live show was a spectacle regardless. With a unique instrumentation of duo female lead singers, multiple hand percussion, drums, and a few guitars, Goat entranced with their enigmatic sound and garb. The barefoot-clad lead vocalists wore enormous head-encasing masks and boasted a riveting blend alternating between battle cry and intense whisper. It was an impressive show from a lesser-known band. Check out Goat for something different and innovative.

Sunday was a day for solid shows, well upheld by the Arctic Monkeys. They hit the main-stage during a sweltering late afternoon set, and delivered coolly slick performance. Lead singer Alex Turner, coiffed to perfection, brought a controlled intensity to their practiced tight sound. They made for a great afternoon pick-up, with plenty of new songs mixed in with old standards. They’re the kind of live act that you simply don’t have to worry about; they’re dependable without losing an edge of excitement. I do think the climate of the audience would be even more fun at a smaller venue, but alas, indie rock has hit it big.

Arch2The entire festival concluded with another a fellow Brit, this time a knighted one. Sir Elton John kicked the topped off the festival with a splendid two and a half hour set. Performing at his first American festival ever, sir Elton and his crisp band reminded us why he’s a wee bit of a legend. Dressed to kill softly in his lightly bedazzled navy suit, he delivered a heartfelt performance with impressively stable vocals from such a tour-heavy career. Pick a classic, any classic; he sang pretty much all of them. Halfway through the spectacle, Ben Folds made a guest appearance and played Gray Seal. An indie successor in some regards, Folds was in fine form as he ecstatically soloed over the song and sang a few verses. The show as a whole had somewhat of a grounding effect, seeing such a seasoned performer still willing and able to give it his all onstage for thousands. It was a beautiful first for Elton John and a lovely end for everyone listening.

Dreems: Clouds Above

In the world of electronic and synthwave, it may seem like a daunting task to try and set yourself a part from the vast array of talented artists out there. And yet, electronic producer DREEMS manages to do so so seamlessly with his hazy brand of electro-pop that transports you to another realm as you listen. You can almost feel yourself drifting away as his soft, dreamy melodies encapsulate you and then the beats hit you with such force, you can’t help but move.

As is the case with the brand new track from the producer out of New Mexico. ‘Clouds Above’ is an appropriate title for such a dreamy track. Things start off slow with the introduction of spacey synths. The beat kicks off and we hear the vocals as though they are far away. More sounds layer in and everything sounds full and clear. The overlapping of different sounds is done so in a way that is inventive and refreshing to the ear. If ‘Clouds Above’ is any sign, DREEMS has a long career ahead of him in the world of synth-pop.

BLSHS: ‘Gave It Away’ Official Video (VS Premiere)

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Dreamy, enchanting, with just a hint of darkness. Not only does this describe BLSHS‘ overall sound but also their new music video for the single ‘Gave It Away’ off of their debut EP, Abstract Desires. We follow frontwoman Michelle Miears’ character as she is being controlled by a lurking stranger with good looks. What we don’t know is if mystical forces are at work. What we do know is that that the hypnotic beats and dreamy synths paired with Miears’ ethereal vocals make for something both haunting and beautiful. Whether the man truly had her heart or if it was all just a spell, we may never know.

Bonnaroo: Day 3 (Saturday)

MLHSaturday night brought on many exciting and respectable acts. From the much-anticipated headliner Jack White, to excellent sets from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The Flaming Lips, an argument could be made that it was the best block of performances of the entire festival. However, in the interest of honesty, I have to say that there is only one artist that I feel compelled to specifically address: Ms. Lauryn Hill. Late as ever, she descended upon an audience filled with questions: Would she even show? If so, will she even properly finish her set? Why the “Ms.?” These questions aren’t exactly unmerited. Hill is known for her distaste for the music industry and erratic live performances. Her thirty-minute tardiness wasn’t some egomaniacal antic, though. Rather, the set before her played ten minutes over, giving her a paltry twenty-minutes for set up

In contrast to the countless shows half-squandered by lackluster, time-crunched sound checks, Lauryn Hill’s band adhered to their own meticulous methods. Nearly half an hour was devoted to the band jamming, working the audience, and testing levels. Next, the three back-up singers came out and made sure their blend was properly honored by the right balance. Finally, the magic Ms. came out and demonstrated the critical value of a thorough soundcheck. Tearing into virtuosic rap-laden reggae/funk versions of old songs, her sound was unique and unparalleled. Her selections were mostly re-envisioned versions of songs from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, with some Fugees songs to spare (rapping Wyclef and Pras’ verses, naturally). Hill’s use of good old-fashioned back up singers, devoid of any vocal backing tracks, made me wonder why we accept anything less– why we often praise people for singing or rapping most of their set, leaving the rest to a pre-recorded track as a safety net.

At a festival where EDM often served as the new jam-band (that’s no slight to most acts; dark-electronica duo Darkside offered an innovative late-night set), a woman delivering all of her words from her mouth and her mouth only was a welcome display. It’s also safe to say that Lauryn Hill put on the best rap performance at Bonnaroo: not only did she spit rapid-fire flow right through the center of a live band, halfway through she performed a self-played acoustic set alternating between spoken word-influenced rap and her signature neo-soul riffs. She also managed to blow Pharrell’s hat game out of the water in one fell swoop.

At a festival with no female headliners and only three females gracing the mainstage (shoutout to Janelle Monae, Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens, and Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Susan Tedeschi) in afternoon slots, it was hard not to feel a little disappointed in the lineup’s lack of female artists (of which there are many to choose from). But there was solace to be found in the fact that Lauryn Hill made better than good on her performance. By taking the time she needed to get her sound right and delivering some of the most precise vocals I’ve ever heard live, the one-time Fugees member showed how to do a festival act right. Hill is one of the best female vocalists we’ve got today. Hopefully her performance made people think twice about the level of quality we mosh, bob, and sing along to at these kinds of shindigs. On her 2002 recording of “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0,” Hill mused on the idea that “fantasy is what people want, but reality is what we need.” Sure enough, she demonstrated that the real thing is not only necessary, but worth more than any backing track.

Camper Van Beethoven: El Camino Real

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Camper Van Beethoven: El Camino RealCamper Van Beethoven‘s bassist Victor Krummenacher previously told Pop Matters “Young Camper is very different from old Camper,” and he’s certainly right. Mixing elements from styles ranging from pop to alternative country to ska, Camper has perpetually played with the boundaries between genres. Now, this year’s El Camino Real even differs from its thematically similar sister album, last year’s La Costa Perdida. Both reflect on the band’s home of California yet while La Costa Perdida celebrated the Northern part with a relatively upbeat, relaxed sound, El Camino Real focuses on the Southern part of the state with a significantly darker tone and tighter arrangements. Lead singer David Lowery’s recollections of shifting states between admiration and disillusionment for his old stomping grounds illustrate even further that Camper is a band looking at time through a looking glass, making their aesthetic alterations between albums understandable. As the men of Camper look back on the past, it’s only normal that their perspectives on events and places would change and this tonally and lyrically darker release marks another successful one for the band.

A sample of a Japanese  airline announcement introduces the album’s opener ‘The Ultimate Solution’ before Jonathan Segel’s violin cascades alongside Jonathan Lisher’s slide guitar. Singing of “violins and violence”, Lowery’s mannered and recently choice style of vocals recalls a Blur-era Damon Albarn and which can also be heard on the mischievous sounding ‘It Was Like That When We Got Here’. While violin weighs down a springing bass, Lowery sings in an unattached tone screaming of messiness and longing like a petulant child. Camper has previously paired disparate lyrics and music and this up-tempo track is another strong example of it for the group.

Though the more upbeat songs in the beginning of the album are definitely worth a listen, Camper seems most comfortable on more melancholy tracks like the dark dance number ‘Camp Pendleton’, where a downtrodden guitar moves slowly with sharp bass plucks and Michael Urbano’s steady drum rhythm. Here, the lamenting lyrics match the gloomier sound of Lowery’s calmed down vocals before a catchy lo-fi guitar introduces the ominous yet danceable chorus repeatedly chanting “Pump up the violence/Bring the lights on down.” And on the eeriest track ‘Out like a Lion’ where a baritone Lowery’s slow spoken lyrics about a baby born into it’s dead mother’s blood roll along soft and heavy drum thumps. The song is littered with Segel’s fiddle haunting the background and accents of bluesy guitar fluctuating in and out but the screaming battle between the two at the end of the track make this a praise-worthy piece of production on the album.

Faster songs on the album are equally satisfying like ‘Dockweiler Beach’ whose punk beat shadows over rushing instrumentals and Lowery’s serial-killer style vocals and when he stutters on lines like “they are never c-coming back” you almost shiver to the rhythm of the spookily low bass set against the ska-paced drums. ‘I Live in L.A.’ similarly pumps up the energy and although Lowery sings, or more appropriately yells, roughly out of range, the bluesy guitar, faint harmonica, and catchy chorus about the good-time that is L.A. nightlife save the song from its less impressive vocals.

Camper plays with its folk side on the ballad ‘Sugartown’ where Segel’s violin slow dances with the country twang of Lisher’s guitar but Lowery’s vocals sound far too guttural set against the smooth romanticism of the song. Also disappointing on the countrified ‘Darken Your Door’, Lowery’s sometimes rewarding stoicism turns into a uncaring drawl and although the song’s high and low pitched strings make one feel like they’re on a gondola in Louisiana, a lack of any climax makes this a forgettable moment on El Camino Real. The album’s end ‘Grasshopper’ keeps up the pleasantries with a slow rolling beat alongside Lowery’s most connected sounding vocals. The stream of harmony make this track a serene ending to a pretty frantic album. On El Camino Real, Camper plays with all (or most) of its favorite toys: punk, rock, alt-country, folk, and instrumental. And although Lowery may need to find a balance between his punky-dissaffectedness and a sense of connection with the listener in his vocals, the album is still a quality representation of the band’s technical and creative abilities and any longtime Camper fans should find it a good listen…7/10

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