The Pitchfork Music Festival reliably books a variety of veteran artists, and its 2017 lineup is no exception, with the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, the Thurston Moore Group, Madlib, Dirty Projectors, Hamilton Leithauser, LCD Soundsystem, PJ Harvey, and Ride. This isn’t necessarily a sign that Pitchfork is pandering to nostalgia—many of this year’s established acts continue to evolve, despite the clear fan favorites in their back catalog.
In some cases, this evolution wasn’t exactly a choice: Amber Coffman’s departure from the Dirty Projectors forced the band to reconfigure its vocal approach on 2017’s self-titled album. In others, it’s par for the course: Moore relishes defiant reinvention, and he’s been remarkably unsentimental about Sonic Youth since that band ground to a halt in 2011, playing in black-metal supergroup Twilight, dabbling in prickly postpunk with Chelsea Light Moving, and releasing intricate, sprawling solo work. Leithauser too has been content to wall off his output with the Walkmen from his current solo career, including a recent LP with former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij.
Friday-night headliners LCD Soundsystem (who previously played Pitchfork in 2010) have suffered from diminishing returns since undoing their 2011 breakup a couple years ago. Early on, the band’s crisp, percolating synth-pop and postpunk seemed to exist in symbiosis with the jaded-scenester persona of front man James Murphy: the 2007 album Sound of Silver especially scans like the work of a skeptical outsider trying to stave off self-loathing by re-creating his favorite records. But that personal urgency feels muted on “Call the Police” b/w “American Dream,” the recent lead single from the band’s forthcoming comeback record, also called American Dream. The New Order-esque “Call the Police” and the grayscale electro dirge “American Dream” both exceed six minutes, and while that isn’t unusual for LCD Soundsystem, the songs feel their length, with monotonous, repetitive arrangements that quickly become sonic wallpaper.
Fri 7/14, 8:10 PM,
Sat 7/15, 7:25 PM,
Sun 7/16, 5:15 PM,
The message of Murphy’s newest lyrics also feels garbled. “Call the Police” is a ham-fisted assessment of current political divisions, with its few cutting moments (“When oh, we all start arguing the history of the Jews / You got nothing left to lose”) drowned out by sophomoric, superficial lines (“Well, there’s a full-blown rebellion but you’re easy to confuse / By triggered kids and fakers and some questionable views”).
“American Dream” is slightly better. Murphy is spooked by his musical heroes dying, but he turns his solipsism in a productive direction: “So get up and stop your complaining / You know that you’re the only one who’s been destroying all the fun.” It’s unclear, though, whether the song the song intends to indict or lament such aspirations, because it favors vagueness such as “there’s no going back against this California feeling.” By contrast Murphy’s best observations, whether political or social, get sentimental about specific, relatable things.
PJ Harvey, who performs Saturday night, has never had an issue with directness. On 1992’s Dry and 1993’s Rid of Me she confronts a world antagonistic to women, both with her barbed, blues-punk guitar scrapes and with her lyrics—”Man-Size,” for instance, toys with perspective to illustrate a lust-based dominance differential. The commercially successful 1995 album To Bring You My Love seduces by weaponizing mystery and desire.
Harvey has covered a lot of ground since then, with mixed results. The electronics-dusted drift of 1998’s Is This Desire? and the brash, guitar-based rock of 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea command attention with atmospheric nuance and ringing riffs, respectively, and 2007’s slower and more fragile White Chalk is haunted by memory and regret.
Perhaps in attempt to avoid being confined by the precedents she’s set, Harvey has occasionally misplaced the intimacy of her most beloved work. That’s most evident on her most recent full-length, 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, a political album inspired by visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C.
Like Murphy, Harvey suffers from superficiality here: “The Community of Hope” condescends to the D.C. neighborhood it eviscerates (“And the school just looks like a shithole”), and “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” reaches half-heartedly for profundity with images of a boy teasing starlings by pretending to feed them and a man emptying trash. It’s especially frustrating because Harvey’s political commentary on 2011’s Let England Shake is smart and pointed.
Ride, who play Pitchfork on Sunday afternoon, learned two decades ago that fans and even critics can be hostile to experimentation. The band became figureheads of the UK shoegaze scene thanks to the distortion vortices and melodic pop of 1990’s Nowhere and 1992’s Going Blank Again. But in a reaction to being pigeonholed, they veered away from that sound, which didn’t go over well: the 60s-pop pastiche of 1994’s Carnival of Light was poorly received, and the fractured rock of 1996’s Tarantula was even more widely maligned. Ride split in 1997 amid personal acrimony and declining sales.
When the band started playing shows again in 2014, they didn’t try to erase their polarizing past—Tarantula‘s buzzsawing “Black Nite Crash” was a set-list staple—but for the most part they stuck to the cherished parts of their catalog. So it’s a pleasure to hear Ride push themselves on Weather Diaries, their first studio album in 21 years. The title track and “Home Is a Feeling” are tranquil, free-floating space-rock numbers reminiscent of Pink Floyd or Spiritualized; “Lannoy Point” intersperses waves of pulsating keyboard between candied guitar riffs; “All I Want” uses digitally diffracted vocals as a rhythmic element.
Even the songs that nod to Ride’s shoegaze past have updated elements. Andy Bell and Mark Gardener’s sun-baked vocal harmonies anchor the crashing choruses of “Rocket Silver Symphony,” which otherwise sounds like ambient electro. The raucous, noisy “Lateral Alice” sets fever-dream lyrics to Krautrock-inspired rhythms: “Someone said ‘smile’ and I turned around / He pulled the trigger and I hit the ground.”
After two decades away, Ride took a risk by deciding not to merely mimic their most popular sound—if Weather Diaries had been received like Tarantula, it would’ve destroyed the momentum of their reunion. By instead building on that sound, Ride have opened the door to a promising second chapter. v