In the interests of journalistic integrity, I’ll grant you a full disclosure: I have never really liked Blonde Redhead or Ariel Pink. Both are bands that I felt like I should like, given my friends’ evangelical fervour for them: they made me mixtapes with them on, played their albums on loops when I was around, sent me links to their videos. I felt like I was missing something, but the only response I could drum up was a resounding ‘meh’. Then when Pitchfork awarded the best single of 2010 to Ariel Pink, I realized my uncoolness required some remedial action. Before I got thrown out of hipster circles, I decided that seeing them live might be the only way to alchemise my indifference into appreciation.
I found Ariel Pink difficult to listen to on record. To me, they were the aural equivalent of bad fusion food, taking the worst of several different cuisines (or musical genres) and then adding fistfuls of cheese. And his syrupy pastiche of old funk and cheesy lyrics- “I want a lady as beautiful as a sunset on a strip”- just sounded like the sad kind of muzak played at an office party in a cavernous bar strewn with streamers and deflated balloons.
But Ariel’s corniness is not what it seems, as I found out. Obsessed with the sound of the radio as he remembered it in his youth, he was an archetypal reclusive artist, holing up in his bedroom to record hundreds of tapes that recreated the sounds of his youth, replete with lo-fi scratchiness and the disjointed, shifting sound you get from flicking through stations. He is in fact a master of memory, attempting to resuscitate the 70s and 80s not through repackaging it for hipsters but by slicing it up and serving it raw.
I realise after a few songs that while they are a difficult band upon first listen, given that they create erratic mélanges of different styles and moods and often segue into something rather unsettling. Their music seems to be organised into songs in the same way that William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is organised into chapters (i.e. arbitrarily), and share that novel’s disjointed, hallucinogenic absurdity, lack of continuity and shifts in time and context.
They flick through sweet surfer harmonies to squelchy 80s saxophone (“Hot Body Rub”), from creepy falsetto to the kind of growly grunge of Bleach-era Nirvana (“Butt House Blondies”). The audience is polite and eerily silent between songs but seem somewhat bemused. Finally a song raises a cheer: “Round and Round,” the first single to be professionally produced, in contrast to their earlier work, which sounded so tinny they could have been committed to tape via a paper cup and string. Although it’s the one song that takes up residence in my head after the gig, I can empathise with the ambivalence that seeps from the crowd as they exit the stage.
Deerhunter, being both less loopy and more melodic, are easier to enjoy. Melding cheerful West Coast melodies, Conor Oberst-esque shoegazer pop, and layered cacophonous jams, last year’s “Halcyon Digest”, their fourth album, has warranted some pretty heavy rotation. They blast the haphazard noodlings of Ariel Pink away with a solid sound, anchored by driving guitars and big drums. The runaway highlight, “Desire Lines”, begins with a riff suspiciously close to Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion”, and finishes with an extended triumphant jam punctured by the ever more strident twangs of guitar that ring out like a bell. Their sound is punchier, more expansive than on record, and bounces around the room to a beautifully synchronized light show. The intensity is raised on “Nothing Ever Happened,” a fast and punky thrash, and the poetic “He Would Have Laughed,” eight minutes of a hypnotizing guitar riff and plaintive vocals. A dozen different strands of melody interweave and cleave apart like a rainbow exploding. They finish on “Little Kids” from their previous album “Microcastles,” which crescendos on refrain of ‘to get older still’ , until it erupts, the smoke machine chokes the stage, and they walk off triumphant.
Now up with Blonde Redhead, for whom tonight’s gig is somewhat of a homecoming–the lead singer, Kazu Makino–is Japanese. I had found their music a little too frothy and ethereal on record sometimes, not being deep enough to entrance nor catchy enough to remember. Live, however, they are completely compelling. Makino, a spectre in a white dress and hair-covered face, literally vibrates on the stage, sheathed in shifting footlights. Her fragile yet seductive demeanour is thrown into contrast by the more boisterous and determined backing provided by Italian brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace, giving their sound an interesting dynamic. Along with the kind of thick, complex jams popularized by Sonic Youth, patches of minor-key melancholy seep through. Much of the latter comes from after 2002, when Makino was trampled by a horse and sustained severe injuries. She alludes to the incident when she says, “for months I couldn’t sing–nothing came out. Finally… someone helped me to get my voice back, and I want to thank them.” The latest album, “Penny Sparkle,” sounds like she has finally fully regained her strength and positivity. “In Particular” is a high point, with its Gallic-tinged refrain of “Alex, Alex, X X”.
Like Deerhunter, their sound is much bigger and gutsier than on record, and a massive swathe of sound assaults us from the speakers. Makino’s voice is also higher in the mix, and she sounds angrier, even desperate in the closer “Not Getting There”. When they play last year’s single, “Here Sometimes,” her sparse and breathy vocals could pass for Medulla-era Bjork. The audience is evidently captivated, and scream loud enough to win an encore.
Was I won over though? Well, it’s fair to say that I “get” Ariel Pink a little more now, although I still find them too distracting for background music. Deerhunter made me want to scrabble through their back catalogue a little more, and I was so charmed by Blonde Redhead that even their meeker sounding songs are more interesting now that I can hear echoes of their live performance through it. It’s a credit to the venue too that for all three acts the lighting was perfect, augmenting the atmosphere of each act and creating a great visual spectacle. If only every gig was as convincing as this one.