What WHAP’s Listening To

August 20, 2008

Despite garnering endorsements from nearly every indie blog out there, the NYC five-piece known as TV On The Radio has never really caught my ear. But the band’s new single, “Golden Age,” leads off next month’s Dear Science with quite a kick. Below is a teaser of the song in all its guttural-guitar-scratch-handclap glory; head to the band’s official website for the whole thing. (And really, do — the Van Dyke orchestrics aren’t worth missing.)


WHAP Reviews: Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III

August 17, 2008


Last fall, Nas attempted to revive a faltering rap career with plans to name his newest album Nigger. The move garnered media attention despite failing to stock a single CD store with a slurred album cover, as the emcee was forced by the economic pressures that be to rename the disc this May. He left it untitled, and the record — a socially conscious, critic-approved study on everything from the presidential race to presidential racism — sold well enough regardless of its inability to send anything near the pop charts.

My reason for bringing up Nas is this: nine albums deep in a career that’s been on the skids since 2000, he still strayed far from bubblegum production on Untitled. A hip-hop has-been he may be, but at least he’s content taking a commercial hit instead of making a commercial hit — so long as he can present some deadly serious subject matter in the meanwhile. On the other hand, emcee-of-the-year Lil Wayne dropped Tha Carter III this June, his supposed masterpiece, and filled it with about as much gravity as the moon — a fitting metaphor given his fetish for convincing the world he’s not from this planet. Weezy’s sixth album and his third of any merit, TCIII is ultimately funnier than it is phenomenal, and it suggests that where other rappers write lyrics, Weezy writes punchlines. But after its 76th minute, one question remains — however antithetical to the posterquote from the biggest summer movie we’ve seen in years: Why so unserious?

The question comes up, of course, because even the most rudimentary detour into Wayne’s backstory suggests deeper, darker lyrical material than on this album. The New Orleans native sports a teardrop tattoo on his face, a watermark notoriously reserved for he who has murdered. His chest wears two scars of near-fatal bullets: one delivered by a fanatical groupie, one accidentally self-inflicted. And Wayne himself can’t be profiled in any magazine article without significant weight given to his weed-’n-codeine habit, an addiction that addles his brain so he can cook up demented rhymes and addles his voice so he can sound uncomfortably raspy. But not one these things — none of which Weezy could rap without — are rapped about on Carter III, and in their place is an assembly line of well-assembled one-liners. It’s just like Wayne says on “La La”: “Wittier than comedy, nigga write a parody/But I ain’t telling jokes…apparently.”

What’s left apart from humor, then, is an array of this year’s most monumental hip-hop singles, and rightly so: each one suggests Wayne’s coming-of-age as a producer, and the likely correlation that people are listening more to what he says because they no longer have to wade through murky, unlistenable beats like those that litter the rest of his back catalogue. “A Milli,” with its ghost-scary, trunk-rattling, one-note bass line, manages three minutes without a chorus but is catchy enough to come off as one giant chorus. (And for a guy banking on your interest in his, well, banking, the million-strong who bought Carter III in its first week made a nice real-world remix of Wayne’s monetary boasts.) Then comes “Lollipop,” a song about head that’s really what got Weezy ahead, which matches mutant funk with mutated vocals. Better yet are album tracks “Mr. Carter” and “Dr. Carter”: the latter an impossibly funky concept song that alternates between heartfelt verses and mock autopsies for lesser emcees; the former an anthemic, old-school torch-passing between Jay-Z and Wayne. (Take note, Jay: Weezy’s seasonal metaphor alone — “I got summer hating on me cause I’m hotter than the sun/Got Spring hating on me cause I ain’t neva sprung/Winter hating on me ’cause I’m colder than y’all/And I will neva I will neva I will neva fall” — should have sent you back to the drawing board.)

Elsewhere, Wayne’s relative genius from TCIII‘s best tracks casts aspersions on his just-par work. “La La,” a bizarro children’s-song-gone-wrong, rehashes the similar idea of T.I.’s “Rubber Band Man” and Cee-Lo’s “Children’s Play,” not to mention Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life.” “Got Money” is just as uninspired, and a throwaway like “Comfortable” (produced by Kanye?…Really??) should have been relegated to mixtape status, if even that. Othertimes entire tracks can be reduced to one awesome line — “You can’t get on my level/You would need a spaceshuttle or a ladder that’s forever” from opener “3Peat” is one such case — or one great motif, like the slippery, alternative guitar on “Tie My Hands.” But for a guy so convinced he’s the best rapper alive that one of his best all-time songs is, umm, “Best Rapper Alive,” you’d expect a greater effort to be consistent.

So here’s the good news from an otherwise bad review: Tha Carter III is 2008′s best rap album. (Take that with a grain of salt, though, as Flo Rida is in the year’s Top 5.) As a musician, Lil Wayne is undoubtedly unique, ambitious, and hard-working enough to let some of his best work fall through the cracks into little-heard internet mixtapes — and that last fact certainly makes this disc a champion of newfangled marketing, perhaps a remixed version of Radiohead’s all-too-talked-about digital release scheme of Fall 2007. But Tha Carter III is not a modern classic; it’s just the most quotable thing we’ve heard in years. Weezy’s insistence on single takes in the studio sure makes his flow superbly enchanting, but he’ll have to take his own self serious before the rest of us can. It’s just like they say in the pizza business: even if you tip for delivery, you’re still paying for the product.

WHAP RATING: 3.3/5.0

WHAP Reviews 3 Movies

August 17, 2008

I’ve been trying to plow through movies of late to get a better handle onĀ  the releases of the first eight months before Oscar season really hits. With Vicky Christina Barcelona, Hamlet 2 and Burn After Reading all on the horizon, it won’t be long. So in the interests of being able to talk about those in detail down the line, here’s three semi-quickie reviews of the movies I got through this weekend.

In Bruges — The film welcomes British playwright Martin McDonagh into the feature film business, as McDonagh plunges into the writer-director fray with this unique dramedy. The film centers around two hit men that have been sent to Bruges (in Belgium) to wait out the windfall from their most recent murder. While the veteran hit man Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is content with the wait, the rookie Ray (Colin Farrell) is intent to move on after a bad first experience. If only he was so lucky, as the boss (Ralph Fiennes) has banished Ray with intent. If anything from the movie is clear, it’s McDonagh’s theatre-yearned ability to write dialogue. Ken and Ray are developed beautifully in the first act, as we learn much about their characters through their witty conversations. Both are likable characters, even despite Ray’s malevolence toward Bruges and his current situation. A friendship is ultimately developed between the two, and just when Ray seems to be reaching maturation, Fiennes comes into town. Farrell and Gleeson act beautifully in creating this unlikely friendship, and both, specifically Gleeson, work very well in their roles. If only Fiennes, who is normally brilliant, had done more. The real problem with the film is McDonagh writes characters so much better than he writes plot, so the story lacks any sort of motion that it aspires to. We like Ken and Ray enough to care, but for a movie that turns from comedy to drama on a dime, we just can’t stay afloat enough. WHAP Rating: 3.1/5.0.

Be Kind Rewind — I wanted to like BE KIND REWIND from the moment I heard the premise. It’s a movie with a true soul, a movie about the power of a community to come together. A movie about the underdog triumphing with the support of common people. It’s about an old man who leaves his historic video store in the hands of young Mike (Mos Def), who is followed around constantly by Jerry (Jack Black). Jerry accidentally erases all the tapes in the video store, so the two hatchet a plan to re-shoot all the movies themselves, offering heartfelt, low budget, 20 minute versions of classics like GHOSTBUSTER. The community falls in love. But in the end, there’s just not enough emotion built up in the first two acts to generate any ethos for the third. In part, this is because Michel Gondry’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) movie relies a bit too heavily on Mos Def, who shows a lack of any real acting chops in a part that calls for a real connection to three characters. Jack Black is his usual self, and in a sense, calls back to his Barry character from HIGH FIDELITY. However, while Black provides all the comedy in the movie, his ridiculousness also detracts from any emotive quality the film strives for. Throw in a Danny Glover performance that is a clear mail-in, and you have a well-designed movie that never gets there. Also, I would be remiss to not blame Gondry for the film’s mistakes, as the French director needed to develop more in his second act. What could have been, I wonder, even if this is a clear improvement upon THE MAJESTIC, which I suppose offers a premise in the same neighborhood. WHAP Rating: 2.5/5.0.

Stop-Loss — When news hit about this film, easily the most compelling aspect was Kimberly Peirce’s return to cinema, her first feature since the powerful BOYS DON’T CRY. It was a bit shocking, in fact, that Peirce was drawn to writing a script about the Iraq war, a script that is so male dominated. The hope was that Peirce would again manage her protagonist so precisely, like she did with Hilary Swank in 1999. In STOP-LOSS, the protagonist is SSgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), who believes his actions in Iraq were responsible for the death of three of his soldiers, and the severe wounding of another. By the time the brigade returns to Texas, the hometown of King and boyhood friend Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), both are ready to end their duty and begin to lead normal lives. This plan is halted when King is told to report back to Iraq by the United States stop-loss policy, a backdoor draft that has sent roughly 1/6 of soldiers in the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts back into duty. The movie wants to be unique and follow the bad politics of this program, but it doesn’t make it there, and is instead yet another film about the problems of young soldiers assimilating back into American culture. As she did with Chloe Sevigny in BOYS DON’T CRY, Peirce’s best character is the supporting female, in this instance Michelle (Abbie Cornish), the fiancee of Shriver and partner-in-crime of King. The other characters are written to be unique, but no one else seems to be something we have not seen before, most recently in JARHEAD. In a sense, I’m grateful that Peirce didn’t dig too deep into politics in the film — this isn’t INTO THE VALLEY OF ELAH — but ultimately, the path she chose to walk is too well-traveled to mark this as anything but ultimately forgettable in the lexicon of war movies. WHAP Rating: 2.9/5.0.

Next on the list: THE BANK JOB.


Summer Schedule

August 16, 2008

From the perspective of a TV fan, I do relish the summer a bit. While it means no new episodes of my favorite shows, it does give me the ability to catch up with shows in time for the fall season. This autumn, I’ll be watching “House” and “It’s Always Sunny…” on a regular basis, and neither was previously in my wheelhouse.

As far as original series go, the summer tends to be pretty nasty. Still, I managed to watch four shows regularly this summer, which is pretty good. Interestingly, not a single one is on network TV, compounding my theory that the nostalgia of “network television” is dissipating as good programs head to USA, FX, HBO and more.

Anyway, that’s not important, so with the help of Hulu, here are the four shows I have enjoyed this summer, ranked in order of favoritism:

1. Mad Men (AMC) — The movie channel launched a full-scale guerilla marketing campaign for their Emmy baby this summer, as advertisements for the show were seemingly everywhere. Here in Chicago, I’m pretty convinced AMC paid the Chicago Tribune to pimp the show for weeks. It did this with the July 27 start date in mind, offering an award-winning show months before its significant competition. It was a good strategy, and I know quite a few that have jumped on the train since the dynamic first season in 2007. This time around, things seem to have a darker resonance, and with every character, a nasty cloud looms in the distance. The addition of Duck Phillips to the roster isn’t one I welcome with open arms, and I am concerned that the accusations of the show being masochist have effected the storyline. Still, Don Draper is one of the most compelling characters on television, and this is one of the most real shows on television, moving at a pace that builds characters rather than additional plot lines, a decision I think we should applaud.

2. Burn Notice (USA) — It took me awhile to buy into this show, but with Hulu offering all the episodes, I did manage to get through them all. The show’s voice is relatively obnoxious, but I do like Michael Weston. At first, I regarded him as a character conceived from Dr. House, but that’s not really fair, as we aren’t talking about self-loathing, just sarcastic. The premise of the show is unique, and while the overarching plot is rather dry, the individual episodes play nicely. I like the character Sam quite a bit, and even Michael’s mother hits the right notes most of the time. The show is not without it’s flaws, falling into too many cliches and containing annoying voice-overs, but in the end, the juice is worth the squeeze.

3. Weeds (Showtime) — The first two seasons of Jenji Kohan’s comedy were two of my favorite comedic seasons since Arrested Development left us. Nothing on television was as unique as detailing the suburban drug business. And in Mary-Louise Parker, Showtime found an actress capable of handling Nancy’s voice, while also bringing a sexiness to the role that television hasn’t known for a long time. However, the show is getting worn, and in Season 3, Kohan realized a big change would be needed to keep things afloat. However, the huge nature of the changes have created a problem by itself, and the writers are having a difficult time keeping up with themselves. While the voice of this show — Nancy and Andy, particularly — are still the same, everything else is so different.

4. In Plain Sight (USA) — It hasn’t been, but it has sure seemed like for years, TNT has done the female-led drama thing by themselves. Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgwick have made careers — Emmy-nominated careers, now — thanks to the TNT shows that center around them. It’s an underexposed style, and “In Plain Sight” is a show that heightens the brand. Mary McCormack was a nice find for USA, she is just good-looking enough and just funny enough to work. She plays Mary, a U.S. Marshal for the Witness Protection Program, accompanied with a best-friend male partner and family of misfits. The show is not particularly exciting or irreverent, but it works just enough to make it into my lineup in a dull season. I’m not sure I’d heartily recommend it, but I can’t really dissuade it after this many episodes, eh?

Forty days until The Office, by the way. 40 days.


WHAP Reviews: Tropic Thunder

August 15, 2008

As an actor, Ben Stiller’s career is littered with two gears. On the one side, is the unassuming unlucky, a regular guy that runs into irregular circumstances: “There’s Something About Mary”, “Keeping the Faith”, “Meet the Parents”, and “Along Came Polly”. The other side of the ledger, one that usually results in hits or misses from Stiller, is when he ventures into ridiculous overacting for the sake of laughter: made popular by his Tony Perkis in “Heavy Weights”, carried on in “Happy Gilmore”, “Zoolander”, “Mystery Men”, “Starsky & Hutch” and “Dodgeball”.

Stiller’s multi-gear ability is why he’s considered one of Hollywood’s top acting talents, and it’s why he’s afforded a directorial project like “Tropic Thunder” — a reportedly $100 million cost, aimed at one of the most unique storylines in recent memory.

However, frustratingly, Stiller has not had the same versatility behind the lens that he offers in front of it. Gone is our unassuming unlucky protagonist, and in is memorable hyperbolic characters like Derek Zoolander, The Cable Guy, and now, Kirk Lazarus. Clearly, Stiller’s preferred brand of comedy ventures away from his success with the Farrely Brothers and Robert De Niro, and more into Will Ferrell’s ridiculous low brow comedic culture.

“Tropic Thunder” is a practice in overacting, overdirecting, and overwriting, but it’s all done for the purpose of laughter. Stiller’s fourth directorial flick is his largest in scope, his largest in ambition, and ultimately, his largest in laughter. Stiller and co-writer Justin Theroux go to every well — no matter how cheep — for laughs, and the result is the most side-splitting I can remember at a movie theatre.

Simply, “Tropic Thunder” is the apex for low brow comedy, as Stiller continues the quest he began in “Zoolander”: to attack and expose the notion of celebrity.

The film is supposed to take place on the set of “Tropic Thunder”, a Vietnam War epic calling on actors from all genres of the Hollywood universe: Tugg Speedman (Stiller), an action hero whose recent attempt at leaving his genre to portray the mentally handicapped in “Simple Jack” resulted in the worst movie of all time. Jack Portnoy (Jack Black) is the white, fat version of Eddie Murphy, only with a chemical dependency. And then there’s Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), five-time Oscar winning Aussie, who is famous for his immersion into a role. For “Tropic Thunder”, Lazarus undergoes a pigmentation surgery so he can more accurately play the African-American sergeant in the film.

Things go awry when director Damien Cockburn decides to shoot his movie guerilla style, tossing his acting legends into the Vietnamese (or so he thinks) jungle. While Speedman does his best to play along, the others realize there’s far more surrounding them than Cockburn’s hidden cameras.

I’m not sure who is credited for the casting of Stiller’s film, but it’s clear that with Stiller at the helm, he deserves the praise for the talent in the film. Would Downey Jr. have donned black face paint and reduced himself to cheap racial humor for anyone else? There’s no chance Tom Cruise, known to be a good friend of Stiller, would have taken his cameo as an insane studio executive for anyone else. From there, whether it’s Nick Nolte or Matthew McConaughey, we’re just glad Stiller has connections.

In a sense, the film suffers from Stiller’s inexperience behind the camera. It’s poorly edited, and has one too many gaps to achieve it’s high-aiming aspirations. However, Stiller is an actor’s director, without question, and the result are acting performances that keep the film afloat. Contrary to other critical opinions, there is not one performance that carries this film single-handedly. Downey Jr. and Cruise have the most memorable roles, for obvious reasons, but every dog has its day here.

The first half-hour of the movie is a showcase for Nick Nolte’s comedic talents, as he’s brilliant as Four Leaf Tayback, the writer of “Tropic Thunder”‘s source material. Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson both manage to have their memorable moments aside three huge actors, with Baruchel contributing numerous memorable moments. Jack Black might dive too deep into Stiller’s overacting goal, but he also gives the most jaw-dropping monologue in the movie.

This is a film that never takes itself seriously at all, and is 100% designed for the audience. While I still have hopes that one day Stiller finds the versatility as a director he offers as an actor — can we ever see situational comedy from behind the camera? — he has succeeded seemingly as much as jaw-dropping, side-splitting, low-brow comedy can offer.

WHAP Rating: 3.7/5.0


Lollapalooza: Day 3

August 8, 2008

If you call Lollapalooza ’08 the best music under the sun, you mean it quite literally: this year’s Chicago-area festival rocked and rolled through three days of over 90 degrees in scenic Grant Park. And with a lineup boasting area faves like Wilco and Kanye alongside modern-day legends like Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, some are calling it Lolla’s best year ever. I was there to test that claim — and I end today with coverage of Sunday, the most relaxed day of the weekend.

John Butler Trio
2:15-3:15pm, Bud Light Stage

Hailing from Australia, the John Butler Trio specializes in acoustic jamming with JB’s own rustic vocals atop it all. And while the band was undeniably skilled, their entire set melded into one singular sound: the twang of an acoustic guitar. Little invention was involved in the three-piece’s show, and even a midset drum solo was more beat-keeping than skin-pounding. Fans who think Jack Johnson too simple and Ben Harper too complex, however, would find a safe haven in JBT’s grooves.


The Black Kids
3:15-4:15pm, Citi Stage

Back in the ’70s, David Bowie was notoriously sloppy in concert — but there was something eclectic about his coke-fueled, off-pitch ramblings on stage. Our generation’s closest approximation to that might just be the Black Kids, whose supremely catchy brand of art-rock is hard to deny despite an overall messy presentation. Reggie and Ali Youngblood, who share vocal responsibilities and duel on guitar and keyboard respectively, are quite enigmatic in concert: Reggie sings barely above a whisper at times; Ali, meanwhile, shouts more than sings. The rest of the five-piece ensemble was engagingly loose throughout the set, running through the instrumental hooks on hits like “Look At Me” as if everyone was playing a solo. So maybe that wise-assed Pitchfork review of the Kids’ debut LP was a little harsh; the band just needs to mature a little.

G. Love & Special Sauce
4:15-5:15pm, AT&T Stage

Though he essentially writes the same song over and over again, Philly’s G. Love & Special Sauce was quite a set for bros and babes. The hipster’s sound is pure acoustic funk, tossed around with some Southern blues for good measure — the band’s bassist played an extremely authentic stand-up bass throughout the show. And if there was a thesis to be offered from leadman G, it’s this: dude loves weed. Just check the lyrics from, umm, “Who’s Got the Weed”: “Who’s got the weed?/I got the weed…Legalize it/Decriminalize it/I’ll advertise it.”

Blues Traveler
5:15-6:15pm, MySpace Stage

Plagued by more than a decade of popular irrelevance, Blues Traveler’s John Popper did a smart thing with his setlist for Sunday’s show: instead of drifting too far into the group’s latter-day output, he previewed just three songs from BT’s new disc and used each one as a launch pad for much better-known material. The first anonymous track, for instance, quickly morphed into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” — a thinly-veiled vehicle for Popper’s harmonica skills, as the heavyweight frontman hit the violin solos note-for-note throughout the cover. Next came a hybrid that lead to “Run Around,” which sounded fantastic even fifteen years after its chart debut. Then came an impressive, thirty minute blues jam — the day’s longest if you discount Girl Talk’s unending DJ set — that culminated in Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” and the band’s own “Hook,” both of which are quintessential tracks for a beer-drinker’s end-of-summerfest. So I guess Blues Traveler left me dually surprised: firstly because they still tour, secondly because they sound so tight.


Gnarls Barkley
6:15-7:15pm, AT&T Stage

Though Cee Lo’s stage mobility is limited by his weight, the GB frontman’s vocals certainly are not. One of my most chilling Lollapalooza memories, in fact, was walking away from Gnarls’ Sunday set towards the other end of Grant Park — all while Lo’s haunting upper register approximated perfectly the verses from Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” which GB has taken to playing in concert as of late. His voice literally hung high above everything else going on at that moment: Girl Talk’s party set on the Citi Stage, The National’s opening moments on the PS3 Stage, even the streaming waters of Buckingham Fountain. The rest of Gnarls’ show was similarly exotic, from a daunting run through “I’m Going On” to a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Crazy.” (I saw a girl who couldn’t have been more than three singing every lyric to the latter.) This was my first Gnarls show, and I have to admit that I was nervous about the band’s ability to translate electronic album tracks into live instrumentation. But the GB outfit, from Danger Mouse (onstage, the dude always looks like a mad scientist) to a duo of schoolgirl back-up singers, proved entirely capable of doing just that.

The National
7:15-8:15pm, PS3 Stage

The National’s Boxer, one of 2007′s best indie albums, has kept the band touring for almost a year now. And I really wish I didn’t miss them open for R.E.M. at Chicago’s United Center, because the dreary pianos and lullaby guitars of their sonic landscape might have sounded nice in an arena. At Lollapalooza, much of the subtle instrumentation was lost in the wind, and frontman Matt Berninger’s sea-deep baritone was drowned out by the bustle of the audience. That said, “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken for Strangers” sounded great — but those two tracks mark the entirety of the National’s repertoire with enough crunch to cater to festival fans.


Kanye West
8:30-10:00pm, AT&T Stage

Having attended Bonnaroo earlier this summer, I’ve already been involved in some festival-related Kantroversy: namely the two-hour wait ‘Ye forced on some 60,000 Manchester music fans without explanation or apology. Back then, he learned the hard way that fest-goers — no matter their drug-addled inability to grasp the concept of time — will notice an extended delay, and that their reaction might be less than enthusiastic. So kudos to Kanye for starting his Lollapalooza set immediately at 8:30, despite the decision to ditch his acclaimed Glow in the Dark Show (and its complicated technics) to do so. Instead, Kanye presented a simpler lights show and switched up the order of his setlist for maximal adrenaline as opposed to maximal euphoria. (“Stronger,” in its jungle-heavy remix form, took the final spot in lieu of “Homecoming” — which was played mid-show.) The show’s highlights, of course, had more to do with Kanye’s band than his swagger: a cover of Young Jeezy’s “Put On” (as in “I put on for my city”) was blissfully electronic; a show-stopping “Good Life,” in spite of Kanye’s incessant reliance on a vocoder, showcased the most syrupy synths this side of sap; and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” during the encore was pitch-perfect and drenched in nostalgia. (I’ll also admit that flashing an image of Chicago’s own Smurfit-Stone Building during “Diamonds” was quite the aesthetic touch.) And hey, what’s a Kanye show without ego? This time around, Mr. West compared himself to Hendrix, James Brown and God many other great performers. But I’ve seen him enough to know that the magic’s in the music, not the mouth.


Lollapalooza: Day 2

August 6, 2008

If you call Lollapalooza ’08 the best music under the sun, you mean it quite literally: this year’s Chicago-area festival rocked and rolled through three days of over 90 degrees in scenic Grant Park. And with a lineup boasting area faves like Wilco and Kanye alongside modern-day legends like Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, some are calling it Lolla’s best year ever. I was there to test that claim — and I continue today with coverage of Saturday, a largely unfamiliar day of music for me.


MGMT
4:00-4:30pm, MySpace Stage

Counting Bonnaroo, I’ve now seen the last half hour of two MGMT shows — and the band certainly plays by the “all’s well that ends well” rule of spectacle. During the final stretch of their Lollapalooza set, the band went from “Electric Feel” to “Time to Pretend” to “Kids”: all three huge songs from their critically-beloved debut Oracular Spectacular. “Time to Pretend,” as usual, exercised one of the catchiest riffs from all of Saturday; better yet was “Kids,” whose central electric motif sounds like something the Killers would’ve loved to have written. And sure, MGMT will eventually need to learn how to amplify its guitar and rhythm sections as not to be overpowered by pre-recorded synth lines — but I guess when you write riffs like this and this, guitars are the least of your worries.

Explosions in the Sky
4:30-5:30pm, Bud Light Stage

Certainly there’s an injustice in Explosions in the Sky — a trippy instrumental outfit from Austin — playing their entire set in broad daylight while Wilco played “Sky Blue Sky” in nighttime darkness on the same stage. (Maybe not injustice; at very least irony.) That’s because Explosions specializes in writing slow, sad, psychadelic songs, few of which clock in at less than eight minutes. And being entirely unfamiliar with their recorded output, I can’t name a single track they played on Saturday — but suffice it to say this: in their quieter moments, Explosions is content to ingrain simple, repetitive guitar lines into your head; at their loudest, the band consistently evokes the sheer paranoia of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” with nary a lyric. Great things, evidently, happen in the sky.


Okkervil River
5:30-6:30pm, PS3 Stage

Another bout of new music for me, Okkervil River was billed as The Cure-meets-Spoon by my Lollapalooza brochure. And with lead singer Will Sheff — who looks like a less mainstream David Cook — decked out in a suit and skinny tie, at least Okkervil’s image was half Cure (the emo part) and half Spoon (the sophistication). But their sound was not — teaching me that not even in a festival as credible as Lolla should you trust a band’s reputation, nor should you judge a book by its cover. Instead, judge a band by its covers: like Okkervil’s mid-set take on the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B,” which turned their whole show into a damn good time. Similarly enchanting were new songs like “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene,” played live with a full brass band. Ultimately, Okkervil’s entire set turned my expectations on their head.

Broken Social Scene
6:30-7:00pm, Bud Light Stage

Broken Social Scene is kind of a giant indie family, with a roster that’s incorporated nearly twenty members over the years. But for ‘Palooza, the band numbered about ten — with a few extended introductions for more famous members injected throughout the show. The band’s sound, however, is still a mystery to me: shades of punk, emo-pop, blues-rock and even shoegazing floated in and out, with nothing really resonating during their first half hour. (I left to see Lupe at 7:00.) That said, BSS is taking some of the highest praise in the wake of their hourlong set, which makes me feel like I missed something either while I was there or during the show’s last thirty minutes.

Lupe Fiasco
7:00-7:30pm, AT&T Stage

Back in May, it surprised me when Lupe played Chicago’s United Center without a full band; granted, that was an ephemeral opening gig for some dude named Kanye. Then in June, Lupe showed up for Bonnaroo without a band — once again testing the appeal of two mics and a giant soundsystem to a crowd of thousands. But an hourlong slot at Lollapalooza, set in the heart of the city he calls home, was finally enough for Lupe to bring out the brass, as hip-hop’s deftest emcee rolled through a full sixty minutes with accompaniment fit for a jazz show. I only caught the last half, which was enough to hear new hits like “Paris, Tokyo” and a Matthew Santos-assisted “Superstar” — which eventually turned into six minutes of jamming and freestyle to close the show. And wake up, Mr. West: Lupe Fiasco’s “Daydreamin’,” still the best live rap song I’ve ever heard, is enough to put your whole ego to sleep.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
7:30-8:30pm, PS3 Stage

Perry Farrell, of Jane’s Addiction fame, was supposed to wow Lolla’s Saturday crowd with a ‘Special Guest’ at 3:30pm. That unearned anticipation cost me thirty minutes of MGMT’s afternoon set, and the special guest (who strolled out well past 4:00) turned out to be Samantha Ronson — whose “Built This Way” was barely a hit after making the soundtrack of Mean Girls in 2006. My point is this: much more exciting were Sharon Jones’ special guests, who turned the soul singer’s hourlong set into the premier non-headliner slot of all of Lollapalooza. First came Syl Johnson, a Chicagoan blues legend, who duetted with Jones on his day-old hit “Diff’rent Strokes.” Johnson ended the jam with 20 consecutive hits of his signature dance move — quite a display for a man of 72. Then Jones went from an old man to a young man: she invited a cargo-panted, college-aged gentleman on stage for “Be Easy,” admitting that she was looking for someone “she could go to jail for.” The ensuing scene (see below) was one of comic genius: the dude introduced himself as ‘Adam Love,’ and his wife of one year as Dana; Sharon mock-humped Adam to teach him how to “slow it down” for the ladies; Adam danced in perfect step throughout the entire extended jam; and Jones ended the ordeal by dedicating the song to Love’s long-forgotten wife. (“Was it Donna?” she asked.) The rest of Jones’ set was incredibly enjoyable, including rollicking takes on “Nobody’s Baby” (during which audience members were her backup singers) and “100 Days, 100 Nights.” So while Jones might not yet be a household name, she’s undoubtedly the hardest-working woman in show business.

Rage Against the Machine
8:30-10:00pm, AT&T Stage

For me, seeing Rage Against the Machine was a culmination of five years of introverted teenage angst. Back in middle school, the band’s self-titled debut was my album-du-coeur — with the ensuing Evil Empire and Battle of L.A. representing two discs to which I knew every lyric. So I can’t exactly call RATM’s Saturday-night set anything less than magical, despite countless interruptions by lead singer Zack de la Rocha to ask the moshing crowd to back up “5 to 10 steps.” Sure, it was weird hearing rock’s angriest band plead with its crowd to simmer down. And sure, the band could have sounded tighter, more focused, and better synchronized on huge hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Guerrilla Radio.” But nothing can take away from the highlights of Rage’s set: an extended “Wake Up,” in the midst of which de la Rocha launched into an anti-Republican, anti-Democrat rant; a brilliant “Bombtrack,” with Tom Morello’s guitar and Timmy C.’s bass pairing perfectly; and the one-two punch of “Freedom” and “Killing in the Name” during the encore, the two Rage songs that stress Brad Wilk’s two-toned cowbells. The set was probably more enjoyable for me as I was removed from the mosh pit; at one point, a friend of mine sputtered out from the crowd, dazed and covered in dirt, with the singular goal of getting the hell out of Grant Park. But my intentions couldn’t have been further from that: I would have rocked with Rage until the dawn, and the band left the impression that — if not for Lolla’s tight scheduling restrictions — they would have too.


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