Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why? + Volcano! + Son Lux at the SOY Festival (Nantes): Why? Because!

Thursday, October 30, 2008. Coup d’envoi for the sixth edition of Nantes’ SOY Festival. Outside the Barakason, the impatience of the Yamoy crew and the festival’s annual supporters is at fever pitch. The Yamoy association has cooked up a storm for us this year: more artists than ever before (twenty), more venues (a dozen, disseminated throughout Nantes and its outskirts), and headliners fit for the biggest independent music festivals on this side of the Atlantic. On the bill for this first installment, Son Lux, Volcano and Why?, three groups sharing an affinity for beard growth and an ambitious take on pop music.

Ryan Lott, aka Son Lux, is one of the latest additions to California’s Anticon, a historic-hip-hop-collective-and-label-turned-pop-music-talent-scout. With Son Lux, Anticon gambled on a pale young man with a hesitant smile, a Mac chocked full of samples, a MIDI synth, and a parsimonious playing style. On stage, Ryan Lott seems a little bit out of his element. But when he sings “Don’t be afraid,” the recurring leitmotif of his first song, his lightly scorched folk tenor is not without a certain melancholy charm. Who is he trying to console? Hard to tell. As the suspicion that the entire set might plod along on the same register sets in, we begin to hope that he is speaking directly to us. But when fellow Californian and tourmate Ryan Fitch joins him on stage, everything suddenly begins to make sense; bolstered by Fitch’s percussion, Son Lux’s music can finally shine through in all its richness.

With Son Lux, 60’s baroque pop enters the electronic age; synthetic retro strings, techno bass and hip hop beats dialogue in a virtuosic counterpoint carried by Fitch expressive drums. Though contrast is clearly the central element of Ryan Lott’s craft—that of the majesty of the low notes and the explosiveness of the high ones, contemplative drones and hypnotic loops, calm moments and tempestuous ones—the ensemble is strangely monotonous. Ryan Lott pulls from the same old bag of tricks, contrasting the same elements and riding the same dynamics. We allow ourselves to be seduced for a couple songs, but we finish by focusing in on the least convincing elements of Ryan Lott’s music instead of its inherently successful core. The cheap synth effects, in particular the very high pitched ones, get pretty irritating after a while, and we cannot help thinking that Ryan Lott’s voice, systematically covered by instruments, is ultimately more hesitant than scorching.

Volcano! Three nerds from Chicago who, like all the other musicians in the habit of dragging their clothes, their instruments, and their amplifiers through the back alleys of urban America, still seem to find the time to trim their facial hair. Singer and lead guitarist Aaron With’s mustache, for one, would probably have turned Don Diego de la Vega green with envy. But hair growth is not the only attribute marking their membership to the new generation of American musicians. Like their illustrious antecedents (Deerhoof and Animal Collective, to name the two most obvious), Volcano! like to pogo between pop and mayhem, combining the buoyancy of a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah with the shrieking guitar transports of a Parts & Labor.

Volcano!’s live set is enjoyable, if not particularly original. Their music boasts a solid rock and roll backbone; rock and roll enough, at least, to match the celebratory mood of the crowd that evening. Aaron With’s airy guitar melodies climb aboard a chunky bass, often minimal and repetitive, and spirited drums, always eager to throw out a disco beat for the ladies’ dancing pleasure. Volcano definitely possess a strong pop sensibility, and they craft their riffs with care. But they deconstruct them with equal relish. Their song structures are always somewhat unruly, resisting the systematization of the verse-chorus form to dissolve into off-kilter polyrhythmics. Sending their public flying between pop rapture and experimental discomfort, Volcano compose music for the feet…and for the head. Too close a reading might spoil the fun.

With three albums and a handful of EPs, what began as a solo project by Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf, the son of a Cincinnati rabbi, has become one of the most visible groups of the Anticon collective. Following the unrelenting assault of fractured samples on Oaklandazulasylum (2003), their first lp, Why? decided to blow some air into their songwriting. With Alopecia, released this year, the group offers up a massive art rock album; the ravishing flow of their early work gives way to silvery vocal harmonies, the lo-fi guitars to carefully chiseled arrangements. Compromise? Probably just maturity. Why? are a lot more levelheaded than they were during their Oaklandazulasylum days, but they are no less inventive.

On stage, Why? are all modesty, vitality, and warmth. On drums, Josiah Wolf holds up a vibrating pulse with his left hand while weaving in a melodic counterpoint with his right. Suspended above the bass drum, not toms, but a vibraphone, played with such lightning virtuousness that we can’t help looking for a third arm. Less conspicuous, but by no means less dexterous, bassist Austin Brown and keyboardist Doug McDiarmid support an adrenalized Yoni Worf who, with his characteristic nasal voice, alights upon our daily foibles with tenderness and irony. Here are four real artists, all devoted to their cause: music. Their live appearances are free of ego and free of wankery: the four members of Why? are extraordinarily good at what they do, but they seem erase themselves behind their songs, swapping instruments throughout the set in order to offer their texts their most appropriate line-up. The guitar, “rock star” instrument par excellence, never stays very long in the same hands. Ever precise, ever delicate, their compositions rise upwards like a tower of cards: a stable, yet oscillating foundation, a harmonious, yet unexpected architecture, a muscular, yet ephemeral grace.

We exit the Barakson with a smile on our lips and needles and pins in our feet. Vive le festival!

Words: Sophie Pécaud
Translation: Emilie Friedlander
Photo: Rémi Goulet

Cool tunes:
Son Lux, At War With Walls And Mazes, Anticon, 2008.

Volcano!, Paperwork, Leaf Label, 2008.

Why?, Alopecia, Anticon, 2008.

Click here for the french version of the article, accompanied by more photos by Rémi Goulet, on the Fragil website. Giant portfolio of images of the entire Soy Festival should be up soon.

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