For less time than I’d’ve liked, but for good times all the same, this weekend I kicked it at PDX Pop Now!, an annual free festival of local bands here in town. Out of 45 bands total, I caught but 13, and some of them only for parts of their sets, but there was some rad shit!
For starters, there was Lord Dying. Our band, No One Can Stop You, shares a wall with them at AudioCinema, where we rent our studio, so I’ve been hearing their punishing steel for months now, but always muffled and blurred. Clear and face-to-face, they’re pretty fuckin’ sweet! Hella loud and raucous, but not that all-blast-beats-all-the-time, we-don’t-care-if-our-mix-is-shit-just-turn-us-up-‘til-it-hurts wall of featureless sound shit. Compelling rhythms, noticeable chord changes, that kind of thing. Nice. I lost my pocketknife—a gift—in the pit, and it never turned up at lost and found, but that wasn’t Lord Dying’s fault—they put on a solid show, and I’ll look forward to catchin’ ‘em again.
Smegma struck a good balance of regular, body-movable rhythm and totally free experimental noise, and though I don’t think I’d seek ‘em out it was way cool to find out that that equilibrium actually exists; up ‘til now I’d pretty much assumed most groups that work with rhythmless noise would be too inaccessible for my 4/4-loving palate, but Smegma proved me wrong. I had a nice time and was impressed.
Youthbitch followed Smegma’s set, and rose above their irksome name to deliver a kickass bunch of tunes. (Outside of its feminist reclamation—which I do not think the band was trying to reference—the word “bitch” is messed up, as it makes sweeping negative assumptions about women and has different meanings when used as a pejorative toward different genders.) Super high-energy songs with conventional instrumentation—drums, bass, two guitars and three (or was it two?) vocalists—and really satisfying melodic choices. I’d say something like old-school punk with a bit of ’60s rock in there, maybe? I’m currently trying to up my understanding and analysis of genre, so I may be dishing out a lot of off-the-mark descriptions for a while here while I learn by making mistakes. In any event, the band is fast, aggressive, and positive-feeling, with a silly, cheery stage presence from the members, and some really clean and lovely fast guitar work. A blast.
The next act I saw was emcee/producer Cloudy October, performing with fellow rapper Rasheed Jamal (his verse starts at 1:22 in the link) and producer Hostile Tapeover (holy shit, good job on the stage name, buddy), and an unbilled guest emcee called (I think; I couldn’t hear it very clearly) Rose. I caught mediocre, sonically unimaginative hip hop both before and after this set, with dull vocal rhythms and beats composed of sounds you could pull from a decade’s worth of radio half-hits, and I was saddened, bored, and frustrated by the stagnation too often characteristic of my favorite kind of music, as well as perplexed by how many people get so into a sound that seems like it’s been on pause since the early two thousands, and wasn’t interesting even then. But when this set started, my feelings on hip hop in Portland improved dramatically. Inventive beats at once challenging and inviting in their rhythm and sample choices; compelling, move-your-body delivery cadences; and lyrics that, when I could understand them—the mix was kind of middle-of-the-road, and a lot was lost—seemed like they were solid, instead of the problematic drivel that passes for wordsmithing among too many contemporary emcees. It started out as the first three performers, and after five or so tracks they passed the stage to Rose, and while the rhythms of her delivery were a bit more plodding than Cloudy October and Rasheed Jamal’s, they were still better than the other hip hop acts I saw at the festival, and she had fuckin’ killer stage presence, tearin’ it up for the final three songs of the set. I caught one of the CDs they tossed into the audience, Cloudy October’s The Metal Jerk. I look forward to checking it out soon, and if you’re interested, you can download it free from his site, linked above.
White Fang's frill-free punk was not amazing, but they were definitely solid, and I really, really like the straightforward simplicity of their lyrics. For example “This song is about… when someone's talking to you, and you don't… you just don't wanna listen.” And the pit was a blast—none of the macho I'm-totally-jacked-and-I'm-gonna-knock-you-all-on-the-ground bullshit you get sometimes, just a bunch of people slamming into each other and laughing and smiling.
As Pure Bathing Culture came onstage, I was skeptical—skinny jeans, functionless thin-soled shoes that speak to never having to work on your feet, and their guitarist’s Lacoste sweater and aloof affect screamed “rich assholes,” and perhaps they are, I dunno, but their music was great. With their were-cool-then-were-sarcastic-now-they’re-just-in-style-again clothes and their instrumentation—programmed beats, synth, bass and heavily reverbed guitar—they look and sound like they could’ve just gotten off a time machine from the ’80s, and usually that’s a big turnoff to me, but the thing about most ’80s mainstream American pop music by white people for me is that, though it’s socially and politically empty and sounds like it’s trying to get as far from the physical realities of the instruments that produce it as possible (with that much reverb on it, guitar stops sounding like guitar to me, turning instead into a sound spontaneously generated by doctor’s office waiting rooms and hotel atriums), I did hear a lot of it when I was little, and music that reminds me of songs I heard when I was like five and under has a huge emotional impact on me. It grabs the tenderness of my memories of the part of my life when it was just me and my mom, and it squeezes. The timbres of the instruments, the quality of a song’s melodic changes happening over a relentless unchanging percussion track, the scales chosen to sing in and the ornamentations used—it all combines to make me feel stuff, and feel it really hard. I was surprised that instead of intense nostalgic melancholy, though, which is what tunes like this usually hit me with, I got a lot of calm, warm happiness out of their set. Their singer’s vocal melodies are amazing, and from what I could understand of the lyrics, her words are honest and innovatively written. And I even cottoned to the guitarist once I saw him get out of his cool demeanor in favor of doubled-over, face-contorting musical passion during a really long and gorgeous solo. Maybe he’s just shy, who knows? In any event, Pure Bathing Culture are pretty sweet. I don’t think I’d listen to their recorded stuff (in fact, checking it out on their bandcamp site, it sounds pretty dead), but I’d definitely like to see them live again.
The festival closed with Onuinu, whose name I’ve been seeing on posters a lot here in town. Overall they were pretty good—a largely electronic drum kit, synth, guitars, drum machine, and really excellent vocals. They blend the pleasures of the feelings of programmed and live music successfully, and they’re not bad for dancing to. For me, their opening song, with a nervous, heartfelt optimistic melody to its ambiguous, hopeful lyric refrain, like the feeling of starting a new endeavor and not knowing what challenges you might face but knowing you’re down to face them, was the best track of their set by a long measure, but the others were solid too, and though they weren’t my favorite band at the festival, they ended it well.
It was a good set of bands, and a totally awesome event overall—great local music, totally free! I look forward to next year’s installation, for which I signed up to volunteer. And shit, who knows, perhaps soon I’ll be performing there!