#1 - Jessie Ware vs. Death Grips
The music megafest at Coachella has been and gone again for another year. It seems like a favorite holiday has passed, leaving one drained and deflated, longing for the next one which feels impossibly far-off. Actually, now that the gathering in the desert is spread over six days and two week-ends, Coachella feels more like a lumbering ocean liner that has cruised into the night, the deck lights twinkling in the distance to cruelly beckon those melancholy folks left behind. I watched some of the proceedings via the Internet as I took advantage of the live streaming offered online. This made me feel a kinship with the earbud, mobile device, file-sharing generations camped out at Coachella. A majority of the bands I watched fell into the indie/alternative genre and were very earnest. I saw a lot of boring stage attire, spastic gyrations that passed for dance moves as well as plenty of shoe-gazing, and vocals with questionable pitch. I did like the lead guitar slinger for Father John Misty. I also enjoyed the Sermon on the Mount meeting of R Kelly and the group Phoenix, although I was disappointed that he didn't appear as a hologram like Tupac last year.
Then, of course, I had to sample the EDM portion of the festival where morphing visuals overwhelmed the performers and the music. A case in point would be Trent Reznor's How to Destroy Angels project. The visuals were a godsend, even though the band members looked trapped inside those virtual curtains, because the music was so dismal. I'm sure it's fun to be at an EDM event, a mesmerizing, pounding environment. As a pure listening experience, I still feel like I'm intruding on the soul of a machine, although I do own an Autechre album that i bust out when I'm feeling angular. EDM definitely has a place at Coachella or any other rock festival for that matter. It's enormously popular and ready for the gossip columns; after all, Skrillex has reportedly hooked up with Ellie Goulding, the pop/folk star. Maybe he'll be EDM's John Mayer and start bouncing from one celeb after another, breaking hearts along the way.
So, the live streaming helped me sample the music and performances, but it was the print media that provided clues as to which performers were creating some buzz. London's Jessie Ware was one I chose to investigate. She is poised to join a group of excellent British female vocalists that has emerged over the last decade including Adele, of course, Joss Stone, Jessie J., Amy Winehouse, and Alice Russell to name a few.
Ms. Ware took command of the stage at Coachella, roamed around in front of the band (two musicians manipulating all sorts of software, key-boards, laptops, and percussion), appeared very comfortable in her own skin, arm gestures fluid and integrated, all the things you want to see in a lead singer. Her vocal chops are impressive; she can purr and shout with the best of them. Unfortunately, the electronic juggernaut accompanying her dominated the set like it was a competition; and this is where some issues start for me.
Her new album, entitled 'Devotion', is a case in point. The backing tracks are a sort of post-dubstep melange of synths and samples. Nothing wrong with that, but this production borders on obtrusive. Her vocals, which are heavily processed and thickened, struggle to be more than an afterthought as opposed to being the star of the show. The songs themselves are dreamy tone poems hovering around the same tempo, and a stiff one at that. An egregious example is 'Small Talk', a track plagued by the most plodding and non-swinging shuffle one could imagine. The 'techno' concept for this record is potentially a good one, and the reason I was intrigued by the album in the first place. The production crew just forgot what was most important which is Jessie Ware's voice.
And this brings me to a brief discussion of a buzz act from last year's extravaganza at the Indio Polo Grounds.
Death Grips is a rap group but that hardly describes them. Here the rhymes are supported by enough electronic mayhem to make dubstep sound like lounge music; you might imagine the controlled chaos to have originally been inspired by the mechanical blips and bleeps found blaring from a battered, old school video arcade game parked in a dusty corner of the neighborhood laundromat. The rapper's flow roars like a mad Viking with weird cadences, odd dynamics, stops and starts. The words spill out in gruff tones of frantic defiance as if the anarchic voices of the Occupy Movement had been ramped up on steroids; and unlike Jessie Ware's fate, the rapper (Stephan Burnett) is up front and driving the engine. It's all innovative stuff and sure beats listening to Tyler the Creator rhapsodize about his penis. Sadly, after a perusal of my local search engine, and who could doubt the information found there, Death Grips has feuded with their record company, cancelled a tour, had their website shut down, the kind of stuff I hope doesn't signal a self-destructive path.
Death Grips and Jessie Ware, two very different music makers; it will be interesting to see and hear how they move forward.
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