Our guide to the Pitchfork Music Festival | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Our guide to the Pitchfork Music Festival 

Reviews of all 45 bands, a rundown of afterparties, and a free 29-song download

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Friday, July 15

[Included in 29-song download] Bands with this icon are part of our free 29-track playlist

[Included in 29-song download] Gatekeeper, 3:20 PM Blue stage One of the most bizarrely specific trends in recent pop-subcultural history is the wave of bands whose music invokes the scores from the horror flicks and thrillers of the 70s and 80s. Among the best of them is Brooklyn-via-Chicago duo Gatekeeper, whose eerie, pumping tracks combine Vangelis's new age atmospheres and John Carpenter's muscular synth rock. —Miles Raymer

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[Included in 29-song download] EMA, 3:30 PM Red stage Erika M. Anderson came up in the microscopic South Dakota riot-grrrl scene, and the stubborn resilience she seems to have developed by being weird in a place that's very antiweird has apparently given rise to a penchant for weaving confrontation into her music. After doing time in experimental groups Gowns and Amps for Christ, last month she released her bracing full-length debut as EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterranian Transmissions), and though she's now wedding her sonic explorations to relatively accessible pop structures, she's hardly gone Lady Gaga. The hints of Kate Bush in the album's electronics and ambience are very 2011, but the fractured majesty of the half-ranted "California" already feels timeless—and Past Life Martyred Saints is one of the best records so far this year. Also Thu 7/14 at the Empty Bottle, 21+. —Miles Raymer

Tune-Yards, 4:30 PM Blue stage Describing Tune-Yards on paper makes for a pileup of quirkiness that could choke Wes Anderson. It's the solo endeavor of a New England bohemian and former nanny named Merrill Garbus, who relies heavily on lyrics that read like journal excerpts, field recordings from her day-to-day life, and offbeat, vaguely retro instrumentation that includes ukuleles, a string bass, and a sax section. But on record Garbus's music is fascinating, shot through with enough actual weirdness and serious experimentation to banish any comparisons to The Royal Tenenbaums from your brain. Her full-length debut, 2009's Bird-Brains, is a winner largely because of its inventiveness and unpredictability, and this spring's Whokill (4AD) would sound good even played by a run-of-the-mill rock band. —Miles Raymer

click to enlarge DAVE KONOPKA
  • Dave Konopka

[Included in 29-song download] Battles, 4:35 PM Green stage When Tyondai Braxton, who cofounded Battles in 2002, announced his departure in August, I was dubious about the group's future. Based partly on Braxton's stylistically slippery 2009 solo album, Central Market, I assumed he'd been the guiding force behind the genre-averse sound the quartet created on 2007's Mirrored. But the remaining members—guitarist Ian Williams, bassist Dave Konopka, and drummer John Stanier—proved me wrong with this year's Gloss Drop (Warp), pushing Battles further into turf all their own. They brought in a few guest vocalists to compensate for Braxton's absence—techno producer Matias Aguayo, Blonde Redhead front woman Kazu Makino, new-wave relic Gary Numan, Boredoms kingpin Yamantaka Eye—but the instruments burst with so much personality, colliding daring ideas and unclassifiable sounds, that the music would sound great without any singing. There are clearly plenty of electronics and keyboards, but it's hard to say where they leave off and the guitars start up—trying to figure out which noise is coming from where is wonderfully puzzling. Onstage the band uses their guests' prerecorded vocal tracks, usually synched to projected video of the singers delivering their parts. —Peter Margasak

Curren$y, 5:30 PM Blue stage Over the past decade Curren$y has worked the likes of No Limit, Young Money, and Roc-a-Fella, but the popularity he's earned outside the rap world has little to do with those name-brand labels. He's largely made his own way by killing it on the mix-tape circuit and putting on berserk live shows—true to New Orleans's well-deserved reputation for producing the best onstage performers in hip-hop. —Miles Raymer

[Included in 29-song download] Thurston Moore, 5:30 PM Red stage He's known for his weird tunings and aggressive feedback in Sonic Youth, but Thurston Moore has a fondness for melody too—ever since 1985's Bad Moon Rising he's used his awkward voice to sketch surprisingly catchy hooks. Reviewers have taken to calling his new Demolished Thoughts (Matador) a folk record, and certain interludes do recall Pentangle—but it's also just an amp and a power outlet away from sounding like the lyrical parts of a late-period Sonic Youth album. The songs emphasize Moore's gentler side (as well as his limitations as a singer), and the arrangements gain depth from the melancholy violin of Samara Lubelski and the austere harp of Mary Lattimore. The touring lineup, which adds second guitarist Keith Wood and drummer John Maloney, sounded pretty electric on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last month. —Peter Margasak

click to enlarge DANIEL COSTON

Guided by Voices, 6:25 PM Green stage Guided by Voices didn't wait as long as a lot of bands to re-form; they called it a day in 2004, then reunited for Matador's 21st anniversary shindig last fall. This mid-90s version of the band, dubbed the "classic lineup" (with a logo inspired by Coca-Cola Classic), is arguably the one that propelled them to greatness. Not only did each album from that era include an armful of Robert Pollard's shattered anthems and stunted art-rock epics, sung in a faux English accent (as have all of GBV's records), they were also elevated by a couple tracks of sweetly soulful pure pop by guitarist Tobin Sprout. And onstage, no incarnation of the band since then has matched the spectacles of guitarist Mitch Mitchell spinning in circles like a tail-chasing terrier and bassist Greg Demos resplendent in his striped pants. It's the real thing. —Bill Meyer

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Das Racist, 6:30 PM Blue stage After Das Racist went viral with the single "Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell"—basically an existential joke fit for Dr. Demento—lots of folks assumed that Himanshu Kumar Suri and Victor Vazquez were just two dumb stoners. But in fact they're two dangerously brilliant stoners who happen to be really good at playing dumb. (The group is now a trio, having made hype man Ashok "Dap" Kondabolu a full-fledged member.) Pick apart the obscure references, deadpan puns, and double entendres in their dense blocks of verbiage and you'll usually find an under­lying thesis you'd sooner expect in a scholarly article on Derrida and post­colonialism than on a rap mix tape. Or you could just turn off your brain and jam along, since the songs are perfectly fine for that too. Also tonight at Lincoln Hall, sold out. —Miles Raymer

click to enlarge JASON CREPS

[Included in 29-song download] Neko Case, 7:20 PM Red stage Lots of things are compelling about Neko Case, but none so much as her voice. With its fullness and precision, it's the force that animates her music, and on 2009's Middle Cyclone (Anti-) it sounds better than ever. Case uses her dead-on ear for phrasing to make sudden, perfectly timed melodic leaps, and her songs unfold intuitively rather than, say, simply sticking to the verse for four lines and then moving to the chorus for two. Case sings about troubled love more directly and personally than she has in the past, at one point coming right out and saying, "The next time you say forever, I will punch you in your face." She recently dueted with Nick Cave on a cover of the Zombies classic "She's Not There" for the TV show True Blood, upstaging her partner and proving once again that she can gobble up any kind of song. —Peter Margasak

click to enlarge DAN WILTON
  • Dan Wilton

James Blake, 7:30 PM Blue stage I sat out the debate among dubstep fans about whether James Blake is a charlatan because the music on his self-titled debut flirts so shamelessly with pop. It still strikes me as a stupid argument—what the naysayers call selling out looks like creative ambition to me. Blake's album grabbed me on first listen and has grown more resonant with repeated spins, reminding me of the homemade late-90s electronic soul of fellow Brit Lewis Taylor. He isn't a particularly strong singer, and calling his lyrics slight is probably too kind, but he works around his limitations brilliantly—he uses multitracked vocals, some of them nonverbal, to harmonize with himself, creating rich layers of multicolored sound. Blake's vocal melodies and programming—beats, synths, even some actual piano chords—greatly enhance each other, turning his rhythms into hooks and his singing into a vivid, intricate abstraction. —Peter Margasak

Animal Collective, 8:30 PM Green stage Few bands have had as big an impact on underground music over the past ten years as Animal Collective. The shroomy, glitchy take on classic Brian Wilson from their 2004 breakthrough album, Sung Tongs, inspired untold numbers of would-be indie-rock guitarists to pick up samplers and synths instead and convinced them to take texture as seriously as melody. Since then the group has (among other things) kicked off a somewhat baffling resurgence of new age music and ensured the continued popularity of the Grateful Dead among young people for at least another generation. —Miles Raymer

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