Austin City Limits Music Festival – October 8-10, 2010, Austin, TX

The 2010 Austin City Limits Music Festival continued to make the three-day event’s case as one of the best festivals on the planet. It went off with nary a hitch, and in fact, this year’s edition may have had the festival’s best weather yet. There was no dust, no rain to turn Zilker Park into a giant mud pit (like last year) and the high temperature never reached 90. The sunny afternoons were still plenty hot, but the evenings were downright balmy. Some local fans bitched about the overall lineup when it was first announced, but there truly was something for everyone in the festival’s ever-eclectic lineup. The festival once again sold out well in advance, and again proved to be one of the best weekends of the year for any serious music fan.

The tasty local cuisine available at ACL is topped only by New Orleans’ Jazzfest (although unfortunately neither fest seems willing to bring in local beer), and the football tent returned to enable sports fans to get a fix in between music sets. There were only a handful of occasions where the crowd scene proved overly massive and hard to navigate. Overall, it was three days of near-utopian rock ‘n’ roll bliss. If the word “groovy” is overused in this review, it’s only because there were indeed so many such moments. The biggest problem was choosing between competing bands in a series of mind-bending conflicts: Silversun Pickups vs Broken Bells, Monsters of Folk vs LCD Soundsystem, Phish vs The Strokes, The Flaming Lips vs Band of Horses, and the terrible three-way Friday night dilemma of Sonic Youth vs Robert Randolph & the Family Band vs Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses. Cloning technology can’t arrive soon enough.

Friday, October 8

Those Darlins, Austin Ventures Stage
This upbeat Tennessee quartet featured a relatively unique mix of country punk and garage rock to create a fun vibe. Singer/guitarist Jessi Darlin’s gritty voice recalled Courtney Love at times in its ragged splendor, but with more of a country flavor. “Red Light Love” saw the band at its best on a fuzzy, melodic rocker about the combination of good love and good music.

Blues Traveler, AMD Stage
It seemed like a flashback to the mid-’90s when Blues Traveler drew a huge crowd to the festival’s second largest stage to really get ACL going. It’s been great to see the band able to persevere through the tragic death of original bassist Bobby Sheehan and the health problems of singer/harmonica ace John Popper, who is now fit and sounding great as ever. Underrated guitarist Chan Kinchla always keeps things groovy on his PRS guitar and his brother Tad fits right in on bass. A cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” was a surprise crowd pleaser, followed shortly thereafter with the band’s 1994 hit “Run-Around.” But the clear peak of the set – and one of the top highlights of the entire weekend – occurred when the band welcomed 15-year-old violinist Ruby Jane to sit in on “Mulling It Over.” Jane, who would play her own set on Sunday morning, proved to be a dynamic prodigy. She immediately accented the hard rocking tune in tasteful fashion, before teaming with Popper for a superb violin-harmonica duel that won the weekend’s first huge cheer.

The Black Keys, AMD Stage
The Akron, Ohio-based blues rock duo hit the stage at 4 pm in front of a massive crowd that made it tough for anyone arriving late to get close enough to enjoy. There were so many people camped out in their lawn chairs that the entire area became quite difficult to navigate. The Black Keys are clearly surging in popularity – they played to about 10,000 fans at the 2008 Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco, but this crowd was at least three times as large. I finally gave up and decided I’d rather check out the next band on the intimate BMI stage.

ACL Black Keys


Read the rest after the jump...

The Orb featuring David Gilmour: Metallic Spheres

RIYL: The KLF, Pink Floyd, LSD

When the Orb first broke through into somewhat mainstream appeal with their 1991 epic The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, some critics immediately drew comparisons between the ambient house outfit and classic prog rock of the 1970s. Both featured sprawling audio soundscapes, both included tracks that dipped well over 10 minutes in length, and both sounded amazing while under the influence of psychedelics. So while it’s kind of surprising that David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame is working with the ambient-house legends, its even more surprising is that it took this long.

The story behind Metallic Spheres is a bit odd. Originally it was going to be a single track collaboration between occasional Orb collaborator Martin “Youth” Glover and Gilmour, but after Orb mastermind Alex Paterson got a hold of the tapes, he decided to turn it into an entire album instead. Its not exactly the most organic or natural way of recording an album, but it’s hard to argue with the results; Metallic Spheres is bloody brilliant, the best album to feature the Orb’s name in well over a decade. Unlike many of the recent releases under the Orb name, Metallic Spheres finds Paterson returning to what he (used to) do best; longform ambient tracks. There are only two “songs” on Metallic Spheres; “Metallic Side” and “Sphere Side” and on the CD version there’s barely a noticeable break in between the two. It’s all one big sonic journey that’s nearly impossible to describe since it goes just about everywhere imaginable. Some portions feature nothing but barely-noticeable beats and layers upon layers of Gilmour’s instantly recognizable guitar work, while some segments turn the record into a dub album, with funky beats and playful synths. It all peaks in an orgy of sliding guitars and vintage synths that sounds like the magical Moog baby of Pink Floyd’s Animals and Vangelis’ soundtrack to “Blade Runner.” It’s all very epic and very awesome. (Columbia 2010)

  

The Posies: Blood/Candy


RIYL: Big Star, Matthew Sweet, the Foo Fighters

The Posies deliver their first album since 2005 here, and it’s a mixed bag. There’s a handful of songs that rival the Seattle-rooted band’s best work on Frosting on the Beater, their 1993 alternative-era classic. Big melodic hooks, vintage gear, soaring vocals with depth, rich harmonies; these are great to hear in 2010. But there are other songs where it sounds like band leaders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow couldn’t agree on which direction to go, and fused competing ideas together in odd ways that don’t quite gel. Either that or some of their mutual ideas were just weird. There’s an admirable effort at musical sophistication, but their best tunes tend to be the ones that keep it simple because these guys write really great hooks.

Posies_01

The first three songs all feature guest vocalists, but in subtle fashion. “Plastic Paperbacks” uses some low-end vocals from punk legend Hugh Cornwall of the Stranglers. It’s more of an embellishment than a major factor in the mid-tempo track, based around a melodic piano part and some atmospheric guitar. It feels like a bit of a misfire. But “The Glitter Prize,” featuring Kay Hanley from Letters to Cleo, is a tune with the classic Posies sound. It’s upbeat with layered guitars, a groovy bass line and infectious vocals. It’s too bad that Hanley is buried so deep in the mix, because this power pop gem is the best song on the album. Lisa Lobsinger from Broken Social Scene is a guest on the Beatlesque “Licenses to Hide,” but the tune sounds like Lennon and McCartney had an argument while writing the song and neither would budge (the Lennon-esque parts are better).

“So Caroline” gets back to the melodic rocking that the Posies do so well. “Take Care of Yourself” is another good one in a similar vein, but goes in a bluesier direction. “Cleopatra Street” mixes in some heavier guitar sounds and has some interesting psychedelia, but feels disjointed. “For the Ashes” brings in some Sgt. Pepper psychedelic vocal effects, but doesn’t really soar. “Accidental Architecture” is all over the place. It probably felt very creative in the studio, but it won’t likely last long in the band’s live repertoire.

“She’s Coming Down Again” has the band’s upbeat sound, but with some darker lyrics about a girl’s apparent drug problem. “Notion 99” is a dynamic tune with big drums and various sonic counterpoints, but seems like it would benefit from some thicker guitars. “Holiday Hours” never really gets going, but “Enewtak” closes the album with some majestic rock momentum. It’s too bad the album couldn’t have been a little more consistent, but you can’t really fault the band for seeking to experiment instead of just re-hashing a tried and true formula. It’s a fine line, but the bottom line is that it’s still great to hear Auer and Stringfellow working together again. (Rykodisc 2010)

The Posies MySpace page

  

Marnie Stern: Marnie Stern


RIYL: Hella, Steve Vai, Sleater-Kinney

Marnie Stern’s wackshit crazy combination of Van Halen-style guitar fingertapping and riot grrl rock really came together on her ridiculously named sophomore album that I will refer to in shorthand as This Is It. So much so that I named it the fifth best album of the decade. Now she’s back with her third album, which forgoes a marathon title and is just self-titled, thank God. Typing out that last one was a mother).

This Is It was an album of all peaks. Not only were all the songs amazing, but they were all manic explosions of emotion. Blistering combinations of lightning guitar work by Marnie and frantic breakbeats by Hella drummer Zach Hill with Marnie’s bizarre yet endearing stream-of-consciousness lyrics created a dream/acid-trip experience that was one of a kind. This album isn’t as insane as that, but it’s still pretty damn nuts. The biggest change is that Marnie actually slows things down this time around on tracks like “Transparency Is the New Mystery” and in the closer “The Things You Notice.” The down-tempo is jarring at first, but what the slower songs lack in energy, they make up for with melody and complexity.

The quieter numbers are the exception though, as most of the songs, like the awesomely-titled “Female Guitar Players Are the New Black” are trademark frantic and manic Marnie. “For Ash” is a track especially worth noting. A memorial to an ex who committed suicide, it has all the power, energy and emotion of any song on This Is It times a hundred. Maybe that’s why Marnie Stern isn’t as over-the-top as the previous album – she blew all the energy on that one track. Still, when the worst you can say about an album is that it’s only almost as good as an album that was one of the best records of the decade, that’s not much of an insult. (Kill Rock Stars 2010)

Marnie Stern MySpace Page

  

Big Gigantic: A Place Behind the Moon

stars:
RIYL: Sound Tribe Sector 9, Pretty Lights, EOTO

This Colorado-based electronic duo has been honing their skills with heavy road work – including some touring with electronic rock masters and label mates Sound Tribe Sector 9 – and it shows here on their sophomore release. Saxophonist/synth man/producer Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken bring their own organic skills to the electronic genre, and having real instruments involved always propels electronic-oriented music higher.

The album is a high-energy affair all the way, packed with slamming beats, psychedelic synths and big phat grooves that are guaranteed to get a dance party going. Tracks like “Sky High,” “Step Up,” “Shine” and “Cloud Nine” all crackle with a fresh sound that is often missing in electronic music that relies too heavily on drum machines. “Driftin” drops the tempo just a bit, which makes its tight groove stand out even more. “High and Rising” might be the top highlight with the way the track keeps ascending through a swirling succession of ecstatic peaks.

Lalli’s sax also adds a jazzy improv flavor throughout, especially on tunes like “Lucid Dreams,” “Breaking Point” and “Shine.” His synth skills are some of the best in the biz, mixing a variety of otherworldly sonic flavors to create unique soundscapes. Members of STS9 join in on the bonus title track for another highlight tune that recalls some of their seminal work like “Breathe” and their newer “Between 6th and 7th,” on which Lalli has collaborated with the band.

The electronic genre has seen a lot of new contenders in the past few years, which can make it hard to stand out when so many acts are following a similar vision. But A Place Behind the Moon shows that Big Gigantic are in it to win it. The duo’s combination of jazzy melodies with pulsating beats and dazzling electronic undertones creates one of the tastiest flavors the evolving genre has seen in recent times.
(1320 Records 2010)

Big Gigantic MySpace page (Contains link to download A Place Behind the Moon for free)

  

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