Live Review

Pitchfork Music Festival: Paris 2012

We’re definitely coming back next year.

Welcome to the Abattoir District of Paris, a grimy area of the city of love that was once known as the Cité du Sang (city of blood) for all its bleakness, decrepitude and inescapable stench of death. Laid out by Haussman over a good chunk of the suburban 19th Arrondissement, the iron and glass Grand Halle de la Villette, now an extraordinary venue, had in fact served as a slaughterhouse for over a century before its timely closure in 1971. Recently revamped as a cultural centre for ‘expos et festivals’, the hall today swarms with a slew of moustaches, tote bags and iPads.

The best way of visualising the place right now is probably to picture a huge indoor football pitch (roughly the size of a cleared out St Pancras), swapping the two goals for two massive stages and filling the floor with 5,000 ecstatic revellers. It’s a bizarre set up and there’s an obvious query – how on earth could the programming work? Surely the sound would drift from one stage to the other? Well, Pitchfork doesn’t believe in clashes; as soon as one act finishes, the entire crowd, shuffling, makes its way over to the other end for the next. Our days are clash-free, unrelenting and most likely a logistical nightmare for the stage managers. But it must be said that this is certainly a satisfying arrangement for the punters (a mix of frogs, roast beef and burgers), and the organisers do somehow stick to schedule.

We’re still trying to work out how exactly things work as Factory Floor’s lifeless, supposedly ‘kaleidoscopic’ techno provides a rather mind-numbing introduction on the first day. To us, it sounds a bit like ten Grimes beats are being played over the top of each other on one continuous loop, like some sort of train screeching to a bombastic standstill. Pants, in other words, and the lulling, apathetic opposite of exciting, raucous Toronto duo Japandroids, who are on top form straight after. Their fuzzy pop-punk formula is of the least trendy kind (button badges, barre chords, sleeves rolled up) but their noise is of the most heavenly. Today is the last date on their 50-stop European tour and we get all this: lead singer Brian head-banging around the stage, dextrously thrumming chords in the face of the crowd whilst drummer David concocts his elaborate solos, and an incredible monochrome light show emblazons their superb shout-shout harmonising. It’s a marvellous set that peaks with ‘Younger Us’, bellowed melodies mixed into an epic rock opera.

We seem to remember there being a girl in Chairlift, you know, the one who sings and that. But as much as we stare, she’s definitely not on the stage during their set. But all is revealed: Chairlift are stuck in Manhattan (due to superstorm Sandy) and François & the Atlas Mountains have stepped in to replace them, and they’re a lovely surprise. With three percussionists included, François’ seven-piece band build up one huge, multi-coloured, melodious carnival, covering pretty much every ‘-pop’ there is: dream-pop, afro-pop, reggae-pop (‘Edge of Town’), and so on. They play more French songs than they usually do and we get to bop along, waving our drinks for roughly half an hour before utter exhaustion.

But there’s no time for respite, as John Talabot and James Blake are by a long way the stand-out acts on day one (it seems to be a good day for ‘J’s: what with the Mercury Prize, etc). Indeed, Spaniards Talabot and guest Pional – two mysterious figures huddled over programmers, synths and percussion – are on mighty slick form as they play out their Balearic deep house to an oddly receptive crowd. Yes, this isn’t really 9pm music, but epic opener ‘Depak Ine’ and ‘Destiny’, bolstered with cowbells, handclaps and whistles, are the clear-cut highlights, by turns groovy, catchy and immersive. The corrugated iron roof is transformed into a starry night-sky to emulate the ‘Fin’ artwork, and by the end we’re confused, at once beatific at what we’ve just witnessed and annoyed by the fact pretentious French demi-God Sebastien Tellier is about to play on the other side of the room.

We skip the latter, but return a bit later to discover that James Blake still has it all. Like, everything. In fact he may as well be Thursday’s headline act (for M83’s set is excessive, disproportionate and really quite boring). Yes, eardrum-rupturing, nostril-vibrating sub-bass may not sound too appealing to most, but when it’s delivered JB-style, systematically layered over with looped octaves, off-kilter keys and half-finished beats, one can only describe it as a wonder, and a crippling, mind-boggling exemplar of modern electro-pop’s tendency to push standardised aural boundaries. Many leave due to the weird feeling we all experience (“mes oreilles!”), but from where we’re standing, the Kelis-sampling ‘CMYK’ and contrasting Joni Mitchell cover ‘A Case Of You’ may well be the best songs we hear all day.

So far, so good, and following a decent sleep and early morning gander of the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Grand Palais (it’s Paris: we’re allowed to be arty), Liverpool’s Outfit provide a pleasant enough start to the Friday with their minimal 80s disco-pop. Bringing to mind a slightly worse Cut Copy, they do seem to have taken off from the exact spot where Golden Silvers last left forgettable coffee-table synth-pop, but that’s not to say they don’t have a catchy sing-a-long or two; ‘Drakes’ and ‘Dashing in Passing’ are fantastic.

The arena is relatively crammed for Jessie Ware and her highly anticipated post-Mercury-failure set, and as a result she’s almost overwhelmed by wolf whistles, heart-shaped hands and “t’es trop belle”s. Aside from watching her slink smoothly, TOTP-style across the stage, the main highlights come as we jiggle off our super-calorific luncheon to ‘110%’, the Julio Bashmore-penned ‘Sweet Talk’ and album fave ‘Who Says No To Love’, newly redecorated without the Dave Okumu rap, replaced instead with sparkling new vocals and some funky disco bass. But most striking about Ware’s noirish pop tuneage in the live setting is her utterly assured stage presence, as she moves from finger-wagging and button-pressing to between-song bantering with poise, ease and restraint.

Stunned, we subsequently decide we don’t care much for 5mph folk (The Tallest Man On Earth) nor same-old dream-pop (Wild Nothing), so we decide instead to sample something from the food stalls, namely a very pricey Crispy Veggie Burger, which is a bit too healthy for our liking, along with a pint of Heineken, which sets us back a truly WTF-worthy €6.

Now fresh from disappointment, we’re uplifted once again as it seems lovely Brooklyn five-piece the Walkmen have steadily grown into something really quite special and HUGE sounding. It’s taken over a decade for their soulful, anthemic indie rock to reach this level of cult popularity, and their sublime performance tonight justifies the resurgent hype. Suave in suits, fronted by crooning pin-up Hamilton Leithauser in his chic composure, they rattle through a cathartic, hit-laden set driven by powerful air-punching and powerful crescendos. When they reach classics like ‘The Rat’ and ‘Angela Surf City’, it seems inevitable that with a new LP they’ll be going further in the stratospheric direction of The National and The Arcade Fire, most likely toward the charts, headline slots, and future Obama rallies.

Very much unlike Chromatics, then, whose musical purpose isn’t really pin-pointable: are they trying to create hypnotic club bangers here or, rather, catchy, anthemic indie-pop hits? No one knows, but we do kind of cosy up to their mushroomy, bleepy wooziness. In fact, most of the songs they play out are luscious psych-pop epics much superior to those unimpressive splurges we heard from M83 yesterday, and this band are definitely more exciting, if lacking in a clear direction.

Then to Robyn, you know, that very Swedish looking Swedish popstar who did ‘With Every Heartbeat’, the one critics pretend to like and stuff. Well, as she introduces her polished set with some extra-terrestrial noises (very much like Janelle Monae does), strobes suddenly light up two massive windmills and three geeky keyboardists attired in lab coats come on stage. It’s perplexing, and actually thoroughly justifies why the critics “like” her. But bang – the revs, vocoders and jungle beats kick in. A mad mosh-pit forms. Normality! Plebs! Pop! And it’s the deafening ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’ which initiates proceedings like some sort of crazy 180bpm Kap Bambino number, inciting some hardcore techno foot-stamps, and sing-alongs of THAT repeated refrain. And although the set then turns into a tamer, hit-after-hit affair, as iPhones are whipped out for ‘Dancing On My Own’ et al, the energy never goes missing, and the room continually shakes its booty down. When two drummers start playing at the same time – wut – our puny little minds are blown. Her set is non-stop bundle of joy.

After this, fatigued and impatient, we decide to stick around on this side of the room for Animal Collective’s headline set, as Fuck Buttons blast decibels upon decibels of NOISE across from the other. It’s industrial techno so distorted that it feels like we’re listening through twenty concrete walls, and this distracts us as we try to examine the AnCo show being set up in front of us. There seem to be two large, multi-coloured feet assembled, and now four big scorpion claws have popped up out of the ether. It’s a massive, mental, Wonderland-esque jungle, highly apt for the performance of weird, mind-screwing psych which follows. Animal Collective are the ultimate Pitchfork band – if ever there was one – and there’s no doubting it tonight as they prance around the stage in boiler suits and head torches, mixing rapid-fire vocals and rippling synths into their dissonant freak-out jams, which are as much about what you see as what you hear. The backdrop frequently resembles the Centipede Hz artwork, a heavier opus than their previous stuff, and although some songs from this do sag a little, the inimitable classics like ‘My Girls’ make the wait worthwhile. Yes, it’s not a 10.0 performance, but it’s definitely worth missing the last Metro for.

As soon as Cloud Nothings walk on in a fuzzy, head-down haze, imbued with a gloomy air of ‘Oh fuck, it’s the last day, isn’t it’, we soon realise that – gheez – it is indeed our last day in this ruddy brilliant slaughterhouse. It’s a bummer, but a bummer that’s speedily forgotten, as Dylan Baldi and co launch into their miraculous Nirvana bass, Frank Black scowls and barre chords; CN are evidently grunge fan-boys, but not of the rubbishy Tribes type. Here, high-pitched axes are wrangled in a Birthday Party-like chasm of feedback and reverb, and it’s scrumptious, glorious, deafening stuff.

They’re the total opposite of Purity Ring, whose cutesy, sugar-sweet bass-pop is the sonic equivalent of a nice sit down with a cup of tea and the new Monica Ali. The blog-hot Canadian duo are visually dissimilar: singer Megan looks like she’s emerged, hair ruffled, from beneath a toadstool, whilst producer Corin, in a sweaty tank top, looks like he’s come straight from the gym, but they have chemistry. Weaving in between their rainbow lanterns, they have a very professional stage set-up for a slot so early, and legendarily-loved tunes like ‘Ungirthed’ go down a saccharine mid-evening treat.

However, this atmosphere is then immediately fucked over by Death Grips who strut on stage in their puffy, hooded coats, whip off their shirts and deliver by far the scariest set of the weekend. Dropped by their record label Epic just last week (for releasing their new album ‘NO LOVE DEEP’ without permission, only to then publish the label head’s e-mail of disapproval on-line), they’re evidently on a braggadocio and bravado high. The live incarnation of the group today consists of gnarling, gruff MC Stefan Burnett, who eyes up the audience like a predator on the prowl, and prolific noise-rock drummer Zach Hill (Hella, Marnie Stern, Wavves), who fights his home-made kit like a wild animal battering a cage. Gloriously terrifying throughout, their set is a non-stop, unrelenting 50-minute mixtape in which Burnett thrusts his tattooed torso into the air, sweeps his arms back and forth and spits vociferous lines over carnival-style tom-toms and pre-recorded bleeps. No one song is easily distinguishable from the next, but their energetic vehemence means our attention never strays. They’re the most exciting and energetic rap outfit we’ve ever seen.

The headliners today are Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear, who – much like the Walkmen – confirm themselves to be the ultimate future Everywhere-Band. In a set perfectly balancing Americana harmonies with infectious art rock riffs, the five-piece pull out catchy tune after catchy tune from their faultless back catalogue: oldies (‘Knife’), classics (‘Two Weeks’) and most of their marvellous new album Shields. But it’s the poignant ‘Foreground’ and lilting ‘Cheerleader’, lifted off ‘Veckatimest’, which really stand out.

The last act we get to see are dead-cert future chart-toppers Disclosure, and what a way to end. Their music looks simple to perform live (button-tapping, head-nodding), but it’s thoroughly pleasant on the ear and the room is the liveliest it’s been. As men in onesies climb on shoulders for the Ria Ritchie-featuring ‘Control’ and Radio 1 staple ‘Latch’, we unfortunately have to head home. But the weekend has been stunning, and we’re definitely coming back next year.

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