DOOM ran into problems yesterday trying to win over a crowd that wasn’t yet prepared to go the hip-hop route. Not so for Pharoahe Monch, a rapper that will be his tough self no matter what kind of audience he’s facing. With the musical intelligence of Afrika Bambaataa and the muscular vocal edge of Chuck D., Monch was one of the highlights of the mid-afternoon, and kept the momentum the early acts had built up where the Killer Whales and DJ/Rupture struggled.
The Vancouver guitar and drums duo of Brian King and David Prowse released an album in May that earned praise from just about everyone, not just Pitchfork. After an emergency room visit, the duo couldn’t built the necessary support due to canceled tour dates. They may have made up for all of that Sunday, as they were the talk of the festival for the rest of the day, and will probably keep being talked about long afterwards. Unlike similar duos like the Black Keys, White Stripes or the Kills, Japandroids have the kind of best friend banter that makes it easy to laugh without guilt. That’s crucial for their raucous early songs, that were danceable, screamable and made you feel like you were at a Manic Street Preachers show circa 1993. That would have been enough, but later on in their set they showed some seriously mature songwriting. It’s almost impossible to imagine that a band this green could already be so fully matured as a rock act, but that didn’t hinder their youthful fun one bit.
A band loaded with uplifting grunge rockers, it’s hard to fully embrace the Seattle punk duo simply because their music, while exceptional, is hopelessly similar to music of the past. Their Pitchfork set proved just why they should be taken so seriously. Most bands would hesitate before covering the Breeders, Green Day, and Nirvana, but not the Thermals. In fact, what made the set work so exceptionally was how perfect those songs sounded in line with the Thermals’ own hits. If this band had emerged in 1992, and not 2006, they’d be bigger than Pearl Jam. If the Decemberists milk the Beatles for Colin Meloy’s rambling literary nature, the Thermals have a similar musical relationship with Nirvana. The difference is that The Thermals respect their influences a lot more, and do so with a total lack of pretension and tenor singing that still sounds punk.
The Walkmen seem like they’ve been around forever; a friend from college told me he’s been listening to them since middle school. They may have reached their peak with 2008’s You & Me, and its first single, “In the New Year,” is up their on my list on the top songs of the decade. It’s features the kind of songwriting that most bands at this fest would kill to be able to accomplish, and live, the song’s use of an organ proves to be even more exceptional, as vital to the song as the Velvet Underground’s Vox was to “Sister Ray.” The problem is that the rest of their music doesn’t have the rhythmic ingenuity of “In the New Year,” and the rest of the Walkmen’s catalog relies largely on excellent songwriting and a sensibility that would be better suited for late 60s pop-rock than Pitchfork circa 2009. They also had to compete with the excitement Japandroids was producing at the same time.