“More Buzz Than A Bee-Keepers Convention”: Pitchfork Festival Paris

Pitchfork's Paris festival found many of 2012's most talked-about acts succumbing to their own self-importance, writes Robert Barry, albeit joined by several excellent exceptions

Ah, Pitchfork, with your endlessly proliferating micro-genres and the faux-precision of your decimal pointed score cards. Still, you sure can pull together a festival line-up. Let’s face it, if you were an ambitious young band, and you were offered a slot in a festival curated by the most influential rock rag on the planet, would you quibble over the rider? Or would you bow meekly and sign on the dotted line?

As a result, the French three-dayer can proudly boast more buzz than a bee-keepers convention in Yucatan, the world capital of honey. If only Justin Bieber, Lana Del Ray and Frank Ocean were to unexpectedly drop in to sing backing vocals with Japandroids then you could be fairly sure that any musical artiste that you had heard being talked about – or talking about themselves – on Twitter for the last twelve months would be taking that stage at some point over the weekend. But if this is the state of the hip alternative du jour, what a strange nation we are presented with – and all the stranger for its sheer lack of strangeness (with a few notable exceptions, which we will come to).

Take AlunaGeorge for example, moodily mixing coolwave synths and Rinse beats for the skinny jeans crowd, singer Aluna Francis not quite hitting that just-so note of defiance and melancholy reached by the late 90s/early 00s R&B divas she seems to aspire to – still a fine band in many respects, with a lot to like about them. But there I was just starting to think, ‘what would a visitor from fifteen years ago find strange here?’, when they launched into a cover of Montell Jordan’s number one in ’95 smash, ‘This is How We Do It’. The most disturbing thing for our notional time traveller then, would surely be the spectacle of an ostensibly indie band at a notionally alternative festival carrying off a perfectly respectable, non-ironic cover of a slice of major label New Jack Swing. Imagine that at Lollapalooza ’95, if you will.

Presumably much more at home at a mid-90s Lollapalooza would have been Brooklyn indie rockers, DIIV. You would be forgiven for thinking that after all the original grunge rockers killed themselves and had their thrift store-bought clothes donated back to further thrift stores, the older siblings of this band then bought those clothes before finally hand-me-downing them to their guitar-wielding baby brothers. Of course, it’s probably just as likely that they simply bought them in last year’s Urban Outfitters grunge retro collection. Would it be too unkind to suggest that last year’s Urban Outfitters grunge retro collection would be a fitting enough description of their music as well? Actually, tonight they sound more like one of the old C86 bands soundchecking in a cathedral, albeit with more guitar solos. They seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time pursuing the boring instrumental bit from ‘Riders On The Storm’. Pursuing it quite where I couldn’t tell you.

Sébastien Tellier seems to have reached that point where he is no longer quite sure whether he is still doing a parody of a pompous overwrought rock star or whether he might actually have become one, spending most of his set swaggering about the stage, getting the roadies at the side to light his fags and telling some truly dreadful jokes. After forty-five odd minutes of this, he’s now wasting time telling dreadful jokes about the fact that he is wasting everybody’s time telling dreadful jokes and it’s hard to escape the feeling that so many of his songs similarly revolve around these incredibly drawn out intros that circle endlessly around the same riff without ever quite getting to anything you could call a verse – let alone a chorus.

This is particularly emphatic tonight, as the ritournelle from ‘La Ritournelle’ gets endlessly extended, the vocal refrain eventually shrugged off as an aside. Similarly, 2008 Eurovision entry ‘Divine’ gets an extended intro but Tellier, still chuffing away on the Gitanes, can’t reach the high notes in the vocal line. Of course, there are some wonderful moments in many of Tellier’s songs and his band sound great most of the time, but blink for a moment and it’s hard to escape how close it all is to early 80s variété Française and you suddenly can’t help but wonder if all the kids loving it tonight will be just as embarrassed by it in twenty years as their parents now are of their Johnny Hallyday records.

For a lot of the acts taking the stage over this bank holiday weekend, it would seem the primary innovation is less additive – i.e. taking some existing style and supplementing it with some new or unusual element – than subtractive.

Outfit are doing Duran Duran without the glamour (but with a few more songs as good as ‘Two Islands’ maybe they won’t need it); Japandroids are doing bellicose heartland rock without the heart (leaving no more than an empty bluster, a sort of Tea Party music that even the Tea Baggers wouldn’t get behind); the Tallest Man on Earth is doing fingerpicky sub-Dylan singer-songwritery stuff without his shirt (the shirtlessness here is, I suspect, key: a kind of substitute formation for his inability to genuinely expose himself through his songs); Twin Shadow are doing 80s poodle rock without the licks, the looks, the preening, the posing, the pomp (a nostalgia twice removed whose popularity seems to be based around the success of the film Drive); Jessie Ware is doing Sade without the aloof dispassionate cool (her band only living up to the strength of her voice on tracks like ‘Running’ where they sink into the background).

In many cases, the very thing removed is the very thing which would once have been perceived as most attractive by the original audience of the style being pastiched. Which raises the question of whether what the hip young things currently grooving to this sound like about it is precisely its detachment from a certain audience perceived as a somehow undesirable association.

If I have lingered overlong on the lows of this festival, rest assured however that it is only by way of a tension-inducing prelude to a series of interspersed highs that were really very high indeed.

On Thursday, Factory Floor did their thing of updating the industrial disco project of Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats for a generation weaned on The Boredoms and Kompakt techno. Over forty-five minutes of non-stop pulsing arpeggios and some thoroughly abused guitars, theirs was a rock & roll divided not into songs or even tracks but peaks of intensity and kinesthetic spasms. Behind them a screen blinked and flickered in day-glo geometries, like wallpaper designed by Frank Stella on a C64; the grid providing a perfect metaphor for the music itself – proliferating multicolour psycho-acoustic hallucinations over the abstract framework of a four-to-the-floor beat.

Friday afternoon found NYC rap posse, Ratking, bursting onto the stage with all the brutalist exuberance of UK grime MC Bruza, fused with the swirling psychedelia of West Coast contemporaries Shabazz Palaces. But while the diminutive MC Hak leaps about shouting gruffly and bludgeoning the audience to attention, it’s the sly, laid back flow of 18 year-old Wiki Morales, spitting an urban poetry that clearly owes more to literature than bare experience, that captivates. Their music seethes on a bed of jerky unease, vomiting up the rapid-fire 808s of footwork and grime in New York accents, stuttering and choking on its own sonics like cLOUDDEAD on ritalin and bad speed instead of mushrooms and weed.

Later in the day, Fuck Buttons dropped some sort of acoustic bomb on the other stage; a quaking, shuddering natural disaster of a noise which somehow succeeded in getting a hall full of people dancing merrily and throwing their arms in the air like they just didn’t care despite the full-on drone war being waged against their ears. Beats there were, sure, but they were largely superfluous; almost an afterthought in a set that would have mostly sat just as happily at a festival of electro-acoustic experimentation across town at IRCAM if it hadn’t been pulled off with such glee. A set of richly textured menace; a sound to inhabit and explore from the inside.

On Saturday, Death Grips largely eschewed the footwork stylings of their recent album in favour of a relentless barrage of cymbal-free drumming and febrile shouting over a rude junglist bass drone emitted from a pair of unmanned Macbooks. Giving the answer to that perennial question, ‘just what would hip hop sound like if reinvented by Dutch anarchist squat punks?’, Death Grips take me back – albeit by a somewhat circuitous route – to misspent evenings at sweaty drum & bass nights in New Cross pubs; MCs caught between wired delirium and brink-of-violence hectoring; savage, punishing rhythms breaking out of overloaded speakers; and the peculiar, not entirely comfortable, sensation of dancing sweatily while all too aware that you’d probably better not catch anybody’s glance if you know what’s good for you.

Finally, a word or two about Robyn. Robyn, I believe, is the Madonna of my generation, the Kylie of my generation; simply the best, most highly disciplined female dance-pop performer there is right now. I say disciplined, for Robyn appears to have trained and honed her own body into a kind of machine. Her performance owes at least as much to the replicant, Pris, as it does to any other singer. But driven and strangely post-human as it may be, Robyn’s set is a pure joy from start to finish. The music itself is a factory designed for the production of fun, something which is in abundant supply in a set which seems to be crammed from start to finish with a constant flow of stone cold hits, re-tooled for a Hi-NRG dancefloor work-out. Everything here is in beautiful excess – more hooks than one can possibly keep track of, a second drummer just because she can. And everything spins and and glistens and shimmers like the rainbow road in Super Mario Kart.

What, then, are we to conclude? From this festival so confident that all punters would have iPhones that it didn’t bother to print any programmes [word reaches us that there were programmes designed, but the printers didn’t print them in time – ED]; this festival so caught up in techland buzzphrases that it attempted to ‘gamify’ even the process of buying a beer by interposing the entirely unnecessary step of making you buy little tokens to exchange at the bar; where no view of the stage was unencumbered by the sight of someone sticking out the hand to take a picture. In truth, there was a lot to like at this festival, a lot to dance to, a lot to sway to and to sing along to. Alongside those highlights already highlighted, I might also have pointed to Purity Ring, to Liars, to John Talabot, even – my god – to a few moments in James Blake’s set (though what on earth he thought he was doing with that acoustic guitar I shall never know). What there was not a lot of, however, was laughs. And what humour there was (I’m looking at you now, Monsieur Tellier) was so tired, so strained as to seem finally as grimly workmanlike as the most formulaic all-hands-on-synths-let’s-all-exaggeratedly-nod-our-heads-in-time business. If then we were to diagnose upon the body of popular music based on these admittedly partial symptoms, perhaps we should prescribe a dose of levity, a pin with which to prick its own self-importance once in a while.

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