Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: Kurt Vile and His Wall of Sound

In the proper sense of the word, a wall of sound was a musical/recording technique first pioneered and championed by Phil Spector. Whether you think of him as a genius or insane (or both, I mean, dude did shoot that actress) he's certainly left his mark on the soundscape of popular music. The wall of sound originally meant dense music, with multiple guitars playing the same riff while other instruments filled the sonic space behind it. You can hear it on a lot of songs by The Crystals and The Ronettes, on a ton of Let it Be and to an extreme in this George Harrison song.

Now what does this all have to do with my review of Kurt Vile and the Violators live at the First Unitarian this past sunday? Maybe a lot! I had the pleasure of seeing two very different bands perform live this weekend at the same show. Pissed Jeans opened for Kurt Vile in the basement of a church in Philadelphia and I couldn't help but be smashed by both bands' takes on the wall of sound. While Pissed Jeans hit the audience with distortion and volume, Kurt Vile and the Violators added layer upon layer of instrumentation until the audience wasn't sure they could actually hear!

Maybe a band like Pissed Jeans is an acquired taste. Their name alone evokes a sense of abandonment of social cues. Their music is loud, off-centered and sometimes off key. For me they do exactly what I want them to do. Like the band Wavves and Times New Viking, they play loud and hard and fast in a genre that never seems to want to do that. Lo-fi "Indie" music, in the Pitchfork-will-review sense of the genre (because a lot of hardcore punk is very "indie" but doesn't claim the title) often traffics in experimentation. These bands turn up the distortion and let it rip.

Live, Pissed Jeans was a force to be reckoned with. One guitarist, one bassist, a drummer and a singer were all they needed to really fill the small show space with sound. This is the type of band that knows how to throw out loud waves over the crowd. The guitars seared, the bass throbbed, the singer got tangled in his own sweaty shirt. They hit the crowd with sound in the classic post-punk way, so it was such a startling turn to still feel assaulted by music by an American Roots (sometimes Psych) Folk Guitarist.

I've obsessed over Kurt Vile before, so I came into the show already excited. I think the small church space (my favorite spot to see shows in the whole city) must have meddled with my expectations; I was ready for a quiet acoustic set. After twenty minutes of the band setting up, tuning guitars, snaking yards of chord and plotting a small army of pedals I knew this was going to be a big show. Kurt's music is, tonally and rhythmically, all heartland. The drums keep a good and steady thump in the background, the guitars twang when they need to, and everything moves toward a greater progression. But Vile's genius songsmanship really shines through when he plays live.

Much like Pissed Jeans, Vile immediately filled the room with music. He layered his guitar with the back-up guitar, deviating just enough. At times a drum machine played one rhythm while the drummer focused on hitting the toms with maracas. At other times both guitars seared the room while the bassist played saxophone or looped in feedback from his bass. At one point their guitar tech came out and played a third guitar. Aside from a song with just him and his drummer and a solo acoustic song, the hour and half he played was absolutely stuffed with sound. Each song built to a searing crescendo of high notes and feedback but it didn't feel sloppy. In fact, it all felt perfectly orchestrated.

I really feel lucky that I was able to see these two extremely different bands back to back. Each enhanced the experience of the other. After looking back on the entire show, it was as if Pissed Jeans were a loud appetizer to the complexities of Kurt Vile's multi-layered meal. And after hearing the simplicity (read: simple joy) of Pissed Jeans, it was nice to sink my teeth into Vile's set. If they’re both coming through your town, see the show. It will be loud, you will be hot, and you'll get a huge dose of sound.