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Transverso's Guide to Pitchfork Music Festival 2016

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Chicago is no stranger to music festivals. From Lollapalooza to Spring Awakening, the city boasts such an impressive lineup of lineups that it takes a uniquely impressive roster for a festival to stand out.

But over the past 11 years, Pitchfork Music Festival has carved out a space as one of the most consistent and distinctive weekends of the festival season, and it returns to Chicago’s Union Park this weekend to protect that title with a lineup that’s as confounding as it is exciting. After all, what other festival would juxtapose the aggravated experimentation of Girl Band and Oneohtrix Point Never with the powerhouse pop of Shamir and Carly Rae Jepsen? What other mainstream festival inexplicably devotes a sizable portion of its lineup to intricate jazz acts like Sun Ra and Kamasi Washington? What other festival hears Sufjan Stevens’ pained folk opus Carrie & Lowell and thinks “Now THIS is headliner material!”?

Yet for all of Pitchfork’s idiosyncrasies, there are some unfortunate elements it shares with its summer festival brethren: oppressive heat, unruly crowds, and a mystifying undercard filled with bands you’ve never heard before. While we can’t help you with the first two, we can offer a carefully curated guide to this year's lineup that highlights who we're most excited to see, as well as some excellent acts you might not be as familiar with yet. If you saw two bands you love on the schedule and impulse-bought a weekend pass, this is your chance to do your homework before gates open. Eventually you'll be able to tell your friends, “Oh, I saw [insert buzz band here] before they blew up,” as you’re waiting to see them headline a much larger festival, and after all, isn’t that what Pitchfork is all about?

Fire up the playlist below and check out Transverso's staff picks for this weekend:


FRIDAY


Car Seat Headrest (Red Stage - 3:30)

In the recent avalanche of acclaim for his excellent Matador-released duo of LPs Teens of Style and Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest mastermind Will Toledo has been repeatedly praised for restoring dignity to that once-mighty staple Indie Guitar Rock. Whether or not “white dudes with guitars” is a genre that needed any help is debatable, but it is notable that CSH is opening the festival; after all, this is a band trafficking in a sound that once defined blogs like Pitchfork, and it’s a band that does it better than pretty much anyone else. Toledo is operating at the top of his game, both as a dynamic bandleader and a bluntly engaging songwriter, and you owe it to yourself to show up early and see him in action. (Julian Axelrod)

Whitney (Blue Stage - 4:15)

Buzz bands, man; they build and build into this ascendent phoenix, and at no point does anyone entertain any sort of demise (who would be liable for blame here... oh yeah, Pitchfork). Whatever the year, there's going to be one or two groups that materialize seemingly out of nowhere, and everyone believes "this might be the one." Which one, you might ask - no one really knows; it all seems vacantly aspirational. Following the Chicago locals' debut Light Upon the Lake, Whitney is 2016's buzz band du jour, but there's something about the former UMO man Julian Ehrlich-fronted melancholic machine that feels more purposeful than buzz bands passed. It's as if the mellifluous tones act as a misdirect from the calculated drive that "will be the one" to overcome the all too familiar buzz band descendent. Plus, they've got some dulcet guitar tones from Smith Westerns veteran Max Kakacek to go along with euphonious falsetto of Ehrlich. (Sean McHugh)

Moses Sumney (Blue Stage - 5:15)

There are some musicians whose make music so personal and achingly intimate that it seems almost perverse to see them perform in a festival setting (and many of them are playing Pitchfork this year!). But something about Moses Sumney’s music feels perfectly suited to a mid-day festival spot, where audience members can sway along as his ghostly falsetto dances around his hymn-like rhythms like an afternoon wind through the trees surrounding the Blue Stage. The California singer-songwriter doesn’t have much recorded output (he’s currently working on his debut 7” with Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor) but the opportunity to witness an astounding talent like Sumney before his inevitable ascent is hard to pass up. (Julian Axelrod)

Twin Peaks (Red Stage - 5:30)

Is scuzz rock a thing yet? Who knows? At this point, it seems almost certain there's going to be some reticent all-father of scuzz rock that will surely have a "sublime" rock-doc chronicling said public reservation, but for the time being, modern scuzz rock has been catapulted to the media-savvy masses due in large part to Chicagoans Twin Peaks. Lynch-ian name aside, the dudes in Twin Peaks will crush the grimiest hits only to turn around and slice you with a deft riff of garage punk wonderfully debased by scuzz pedals. Its a masterclass in punk rock sensibilities, with all five members likely to make a mockery of the pretension expected at Pitchfork. (Sean McHugh)

Mick Jenkins (Blue Stage - 6:15)

Let's be real here, Pitchfork is lacking heavily in the arena of hip-hop, rap, of urban culture in general. Feel free to attribute such a fact to manicured digits of Conde Naste, or perhaps this year was "thin" on "quality" rap artists. (Oh wait, it wasn't/isn't.) Thank goodness for Mick Jenkins - the bracket-ly inclined rapper from Chicago is bringing some swerve to a considerably emotionally, consciously, emphatically tepid lineup on the first day of Pitchfork. Expect to see Jenkins finally perform some tracks from his recently completed [T]he [H]ealing [C]omponent, along with tracks of the stellar [W]ater and [W]aves(Sean McHugh)

Carly Rae Jepsen (Green Stage - 6:25)

Is Carly Rae Jepsen an unknown artist waiting for her big break? No. Is she on an independent label? She is not. Is it weird that she’s playing this festival at all? Yes, it is very fucking weird. But put aside your preconceived notions about labels, genre, and fame and put on “Run Away With Me”. Listen to the opening saxophone wail, the breathy vocals and breathless crescendo, the heart-stopping beat before the massive chorus. Imagine experiencing that live in a giant park with a bunch of sweaty Pitchfork readers. Savor how weird and wonderful it is that one of the most prominent pop stars of our time is on a festival lineup with Sun Ra Arkestra. Pitchfork Fest only happens once a year – why not have some fun? (Julian Axelrod)

Broken Social Scene (Red Stage - 7:20)

One of the greatest indie bands no one seems to talk about, know about, or understand. At the very least, the Canadian collective has seen a revolving door of members that have gone on to become Feist, Metric, Stars, Tortoise, and Jason Collett. They've put out a handful of some of the greatest indie-records of the past two decades - You Forgot It People in 2002, and a self-titled LP in 2005 - and yet people still seem to have overlooked every last ounce of great music BSS has produced. While the complete lineup for BSS has not yet been determined (there have been times where only six members play a set, and nineteen the next), don't be surprised to see appearances from some of the larger names borne out of BSS (looking at you, Leslie Feist). So for the love of all that is good in the world, go pay your respects to your indie deities and see Broken Social Scene. (Sean McHugh)

Shamir (Blue Stage - 8:15)

Hi, Hi, howdy, howdy, hi, hi; Shamir is playing Pitchfork Friday night. This is going to be a dance party unseen by any other act sharing the Friday evening bill with Shamir. I highly doubt you're going to see any new-age Madonna vogueing mixed with Harlem Fela Kuti at Beach House or Twin Peaks, but you will definitely see it in one way shape or form at Shamir's set. Still running off the power of Ratchet, Shamir's sweet demeanor on stage mixed with the playful panache of his lyricism will undoubtedly make for a fun time while closing out the festival for the evening or finding some emotional respite before heading into the vibe-heavy Beach House set. (Sean McHugh)

Beach House (Green Stage - 8:30)

Rarely will you see a band perform so gracefully despite being so far out of their element as Beach House at an outdoor festival. In an interview with Pitchfork themselves, guitarist Alex Scally recounted how the 2007 edition served as a disastrous first festival appearance for the dreamy Baltimorean duo, as they failed to adjust to the conflicting noise and quick pace. Fast forward to 2016, and coming off the back of a one-two punch of stunningly gorgeous albums in Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, the pair are undoubtedly set to put in a far more veteran shift in their fourth Pitchfork appearance nearly a decade later. While the exposed stages of the outdoors will never offer peak conduciveness to the trancelike Beach House experience (and you do owe it to yourself to witness them at their best), having seen them at both ends of the spectrum from Bonnaroo's afternoon chaos to an intimate, dark theatre, I can attest even their lowest point is still swirling somewhere up in the loveliest clouds. (Weston Pagano)


SATURDAY


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Circuit Des Yeux (Green Stage - 1:00)

Oh boy, here you go folks - if you fancy yourself an aficionado of good or "hip" music, or if you're one of those jagoffs that loves to say "I saw them before they were big," then here's your chance. Circuit Des Yeux is the work of Jackie Lynn, a highly prophesied Gemini out of Franklin, TN, that has since wandered her way up to Chicago to bring her femme fatale experimentalism to Pitchfork. Think if David Bowie met Roseanne Cash did tabs upon tabs; their vision quest brought them to Circuit Des Yeux. Its going to be a guaranteed weird old time. (Sean McHugh)

RP Boo (Blue Stage - 1:45)

One of the egregiously overlooked pioneers of Chicago footwork, RP Boo is going to bring some heavy grooves to Pitchfork to break up all that indie rock and brooding. Its probably going to be a small crowd at RP Boo's set, but that's fine by him, because Kavain Space is accustomed to being underrated and flipped over, but don't expect his music to be any sort of by-product of such an unfortunate reality. Be ready to dance your ass off at this set. (Sean McHugh)

Kevin Morby (Green Stage - 2:30)

You may know Kevin Morby from his stints in bands like The Babies and Woods (who also play Pitchfork this year), or you may know him from his excellent solo career. But you don’t have to know him from Adam to enjoy his warm, lived-in folk rock, which recalls the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen in its lyrical specificity. (Check out “Dorothy,” a love song so heartfelt and tender you don’t even notice it’s about a guitar.) If you’re trying to kill time on a warm festival afternoon, it’s hard to do better than Morby’s propulsive, sprawling Americana. (Julian Axelrod)

Royal Headache (Blue Stage - 2:45)

A gang of punks comes to America from Australia. They call themselves Shogun, Law, Joe and Shorty. They proceed to fuck shit up. If this sounds more like the plot of a Mad Max sequel than the backstory of a Pitchfork act, that’s because Royal Headache are not your average buzz band. Over the course of just two albums, the group has perfected their signature brand of tuneful, heartfelt garage rock, bringing the acidity and wit of '70s punks like the Buzzcocks into the 21st century. If nothing else, you should check out their set to witness Shogun’s throat-scraping howl in person. (Julian Axelrod)

Savages (Green Stage - 4:15)

Go to Savages' set, for the love all things that are punk rock and not indie, go to Savages' set. Jehnny Beth (who recently made non-news with her "feud" with fellow fest act Sufjan Stevens) and her cohorts in Savages put on one of the best and most impressive live performances in terms of bravado and pure wall of sound fury. There's no frills of "hey guys, we're so honored to be here," but rather an unabashed smash-a-bottle-over-your-head existentialism that is a right of passage brilliance. Savages are arguably one of, if not the best live band on the festival circuit in 2016, so consider their set to be a nice upper before you head into the smooth grooves and grinds of, say, Dev Hynes. (Sean McHugh)

Blood Orange (Red Stage - 5:15)

Dev Hynes, otherwise has known as Blood Orange, distills what it means to have a contemporary musical sensibility. Drawing from everything, whether it’s post-punk, '80s soul, pop, and funk, free jazz, or the Golden Age of hip-hop, Blood Orange isn’t afraid to take genre and obliterate it. Coming off his critically acclaimed 3rd studio album, Freetown Sound, Dev has mastered his craft and his message. If there was ever a time to see him, now is the time, and like Kendrick Lamar, Blood Orange’s music is dialed in on the current state of affairs in this country. Do your do-diligence a favor by seeing this artist perform. Also, the man can dance. (Andrew Meriwether)

Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds (Red Stage - 7:25)

This will be short - it doesn't matter who you are, what music you prefer - go see Brian Wilson. He's playing arguably the most formative pop record in all of music, Pet Sounds, in its 50th ANNIVERSARY, its a modern masterpiece, and a relic of what led to all this indie nonsense we listen to now. Go see Brian Wilson, you dopes. (Sean McHugh)

Anderson Paak (Blue Stage - 7:45)

I’ve never scheduled a music festival before. It seems like a tough job; no matter where and when you put each act, people are going to be upset that two of their favorite bands are playing at the same time. That said, what were the festival organizers thinking when they scheduled ascendant singer-rapper-musician Anderson Paak to play opposite Brian Wilson? Did they not think these two polymath masters of California soul would have any shared audience? Regardless, Paak’s set is required viewing for anyone who couldn’t care less about the Beach Boys. On his sun-kissed opus Malibu, he gleefully skips between sounds and styles, displaying a disregard for genre that comes with knowing he excels at everything he tries. If you don’t want to spend your Saturday night seeing a legend’s last bow, you can spend it watching a legend in the making. (Julian Axelrod)

Sufjan Stevens (Green Stage - 8:30)

Let's be honest, if you read Transverso, you're probably a Sufjan Stan. So you're already planning on bawling your eyes out at his set, as you should. It's a no brainer, and if you skip it, you might actually be brain dead. (Sean McHugh)


SUNDAY


Kamasi Washington (Red Stage - 3:20)

Its amazing to consider the fact that someone who is likely to go down as the finest modern neo-afro-jazz performer of a generation keeps getting thrown into such shitty festival slots. Kamasi's 2015 release The Epic is already one of the greatest albums of the decade, and will likely continue suit to become one of the best in the first half of the first century of the new millennium. Expect to be torn about by torrid saxophone and heaving afro-beat fusion only to be rematerialized by neo-classical soul that only Kamasi could provide. (Sean McHugh)

NAO (Blue Stage - 3:45)

Hey you hipster dopes! Here's another artist playing Pitchfork that (if you're lucky) you'll happen upon and two years from now, gleefully gloat about having seen her before she blew up! Or you'll just lie, because you know she was on the bill, but you didn't go because you actually just listen to the same homogenized aesthetic of music! Neo Jessica Joshua is going to break onto the scene like no other electro-funk artist has. She encompasses the pure new age R&B revivalism that music counter culture has so willfully embraced, and will undoubtedly usher in a new era of pop and R&B sensibilities to trip-hop and the like. (Sean McHugh)

Empress Of (Blue Stage - 4:45)

The Chicago Reader recently published a piece criticizing the gender disparity of Pitchfork’s lineup, and while the festival is definitely lacking in female artists, there are plenty of incredible women scattered throughout the lineup. Take Lorely Rodriguez, who records thoughtful, incisive electropop under the moniker Empress Of. Rodriguez’s songs play with a subtle tension between listener and artist, from her frantic beats to her pained cries to the topics she addresses in her music, such as gender roles and class disparity. She's also coming off a recent feature in Blood Orange's impressive Freetown Sound, and you can see her on Sunday to prove that incredible artists can always draw a festival audience, regardless of gender. (Julian Axelrod)

Neon Indian (Red Stage - 5:15)

Here's one of the most indomitable indie-pop electro bands to cut their teeth in the post-Aughts era, and they just continually manage to get wedged in between other sets for one reason or another. But that never stopped Alan Palomo and co. from putting on a hella good show, and put on a good show they will. Their 2015 release, Vega Intl. Night School was criminally overlooked by many a mediocre media outlet, but look out for standout tracks from the record like "Smut!" and "61 Cygni Ave" in the live set to keep you more than just interested. (Sean McHugh)

 

Jeremih (Green Stage - 6:15)

Every year, it seems like the indie crowd decides it would be ironically funny, or charitable (get over yourselves) to randomly select an early-Aughts R&B stalwart and suddenly plaster the "cool" ascription upon them. 2014 it was The Dream, 2015 T-Pain, and it looks like 2016 has seen Jeremih receive the indifferent title. Whether you're up to snuff on your knowledge of early-Aughts R&B or not, you have got to see Jeremih for the deep cuts off of his self-titled and stay for the dark hour virility of Late Night as well as Jeremih's rumored collaborations with PARTYNEXTDOOR. (Sean McHugh)

Thundercat (Blue Stage - 6:45)

It’s rare for session players to attain solo stardom, and that feat is even rarer for session bassists. But most musicians don’t have the vision, talent and ambition of Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat. Whether you know him from his work with Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus, or his own jams like “Oh Sheit It’s X,” Bruner is a force to be reckoned with live, wielding his four-string like a weapon and leveling crowds with intricate basslines. There’s a good chance you won’t see anything else like Thundercat all weekend. (Julian Axelrod)

FKA Twigs (Green Stage - 8:30)

Non-conformism has become a little overwrought with this current generation of "don't you dare put me in a category" generation of pop-artists, but they all inevitably wind up being pretty much one in the same. FKA Twigs, however, is unequivocally her own entity, to the point of which it seems almost as if Twigs' role as pioneer pop fatalist has seen the likes of Madonna and Beyonce try and mimic (and of course, fail). The former choreographer not only has sumptuous and tempestuous post-R&B beats to help fuel the live performance, but her falsetto is so enviable, its hard to picture anything other than a cherubim uttering at the same octave. (Sean McHugh)

Oneohtrix Point Never (Blue Stage - 8:45)

You're looking at one of the most acclaimed electronic artists in the history of the genre in Daniel Lopatin, and you're getting a chance to hear one of the seminal genre records in a decade live - what more could you need to be brought to the set? (Sean McHugh)

Blood Orange Explores Ancestry, Christianity, and Black Identity on 'Freetown Sound'

Music ReviewAndrew MeriwetherComment

Freetown, Sierra Leone was established by British abolitionists and freed slaves from North America back in 1792. The idea was to provide African Americans the chance at new life after bondage enacted through the tenants of the Christian faith, but like many idyllic propositions, its enactment and history is more complicated. Over the course of its life it was destroyed by local inhabitants and rebuilt, eventually colonized—rather ironically—by the British, withstood invasions from the French, declared independence in 1961, and faced civil war in the 90s. Besides being the home city of Dev Hynes’ father, Freetown is also an ideal metaphor and backdrop to Blood Orange’s third studio album.

Spanning 17 songs, Freetown Sound is Hynes’ exploration of a cornucopia of themes including—but certainly not limited to—Christianity, false promises of faith, Black identity, Feminism, sexuality, and police brutality. While being an overtly political album, Hynes never loses himself in abstraction, remaining intensely personal and feeling. After setting the political tone of the album with a sample from a spoken word piece by Ashlee Haze, Hynes moves into one of the “singles” (if there are any singles) "Augustine."

“My father was a young man / My mother off the boat / My eyes were fresh at 21 / Bruised but still afloat.” Here, Hynes directly references his own parents, who immigrated to London in their early 20s, his mother from Guyana and his father from Sierra Leone. The song then shifts to towards St. Augustine, the prolific theologian who spent a great deal of his life in Western Africa. Augustine is an interesting choice; during his young life he struggled greatly with his own sexuality. Using quotations from Augustine’s writing in the chorus, Hynes recontextualizes the bishop in order to reveal the contemporary black, queer experience. Augustine also famously condemned slavery as sin, and encouraged his followers to abandon the horrific practice. Augustine’s Catholicism thus represents the possibility of Christianity to be a liberating force for Blacks, Hynes knows that other followers of the faith were responsible for the mass enslavement of Africans and killing of young black men like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, demonstrating the paradoxical conundrum of a being a black Christian. 

This complex examination of personal and cultural history and religion characterizes this album as a whole. The sheer volume of tracks and layers of instrumentation and samples can at times make this album dizzying, and perhaps even a bit disorienting; this is not an album you can get a handle on after the first listen. Nonetheless, Hynes successfully draws the listener in, and will have you leaning forward listening intently to the movement of each song.

Sonically, Freetown Sound is a masterpiece. In an interview with V Magazine, Hynes compares the album’s overall feel to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, in that it plays like “a long mix tape.” While aspects of this album do resemble the aesthetic quality of the mix tape, it could be more accurately characterized as the stream of consciousness of a young man grappling with the realities of being black in the United States. The sudden cuts from a lecture by Ta-Nehisi Coates or the streets of Freetown, mixed with turntable scratches, and the musical interpretation of the ideas contained in those samples, makes one feel as if they are quite literally inside the mind of Hynes.

While still drawing from the 80s soul and R&B to create that hazy, thick, and ethereal sound that has come to characterize Blood Orange, Hynes also expands his musical palate here. There are instances of funk, 808s and hip-hop, and jazz scattered throughout the record, demonstrating Hynes’ virtuosity and understanding of genre. It’s refreshing to hear Hynes utilize new instruments like the saxophone, xylophone, conga, and djembe, and mix his steam-filled-room pop with cleaner instrumentation that provide the tracks a greater vibrancy. Following similar choices from Cupid DeluxeFreetown Sound contains a number of fantastic guest vocalists, including: Empress Of, Ava Raiin, Carley Rae Jepsen, and others. Hadron Collider, for instance, features a gorgeous performance by Nelly Furtado, whose voice absolutely soars alongside Hynes.

Though the sequencing of Freetown Sound can feel messy, this choice seems intentional. Hynes creates a milieu of ideas and feelings that are deconstructed and expanded through sound and verse, letting the listener marinate in its complexity. The result is powerful and moving composition that new and old Blood Orange fans alike will appreciate.