Noise Pop 2013: Califone, ‘Scene Unseen,’ and DIIV

Pub date March 5, 2013

Will 2013 be the year that Noise Pop began downsizing? Or, is the festival simply adjusting its focus towards smaller, rising acts? Either way, this year’s lineup was surprising from the get-go, eschewing the name-brand, Flaming Lips-y headliners in favor of rising, blog-friendly outfits like Toro Y Moi and DIIV. Sadly, I couldn’t occupy nine venues at a time, so here’s a rundown of the Noise Pop shows I did see this past weekend.

Having listened to Califone‘s records for over a decade, yet never seen it live, I was curious about the band’s strategy in translating its studio material to the stage. From its introductory statement, Roomsound (2001), to the extended freakout-jams of Heron King Blues (2004), to last year’s Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People, Califone’s sound has always been production-oriented, augmenting the rustic twang of blues and roots music with an equally faded, rusted, precarious palette of electronic sound. No one merges the old and the new quite like Califone in the studio; the band’s records are visionary, but sadly, its live show didn’t quite measure up.

My first impression: no electronics. Frontperson Tim Rutili’s four-piece band consisted simply of two guitars, bass, and drums, leaving behind a significant part of the Califone identity. While this stripped-down approach isn’t necessarily a bad move, it requires a batch of songs strong enough to resonate after being whittled down to their skeletal forms.

While certain pieces thrived under the minimal treatment (“The Orchids,” “Electric Fence,” “Bottles and Bones”) others began spinning their wheels after a while (“Ape-Like,” “All Tied,” by Rutili’s side project Red Red Meat), without electronic ornamentation to keep the dynamics compelling. Yet, whenever the instrumentation was lacking, Rutili’s raspy voice and slide guitar came to the rescue, and picked up most of the slack.

While I would’ve liked to see them approach their studio material with more ambition and imagination, Rutili and Co. certainly made the trip to Cafe Du Nord worthwhile.

After Califone, I headed to 1015 Folsom to catch the last two sets of Scene Unseen, the club’s attempt to piece together the remnants of the “chillwave” scene of summer 2010. NYC’s Washed Out and recent Bay-Area transplant Toro Y Moi played DJ sets, one after the other, both of which seemed to amount to little more than standing in front of a MacBook, and pushing play. So, those seeking a “performance” were likely disappointed. However, both musicians put on competent, engaging sets, showing a deft understanding of flow and dynamics, and putting the crowd into a well-controlled frenzy.

Washed Out‘s crowd-pleasing-est moment was likely Todd Terje’s “Inspector Norse,” the space-disco extravaganza that every critic seemed to embrace in 2012. The best thing I heard for the first time was “Holding On” by Classixx, a house anthem that played like a poor-man’s “Digital Love” by Daft Punk, yet trounced most of the competition.

Toro Y Moi’s set was more diverse, and less reliant on four-on-the-floor percussion than Washed Out’s. Jumping from a Larry Levan remix of Positive Force’s “We Got the Funk,” to Daphni, Purity Ring, Mariah Carey, and most memorably, Ginuwine’s “Pony,” the lack of genre-specificity was reminiscent of Anything in Return, Toro Y Moi’s new LP that rejects the notion of chillwave for something warmer, more personable, and harder to classify.

It seems that Washed Out and Toro Y Moi have differing priorities at this point, with one staying comfortably within the confines of chillwave, and the other exploring beyond its boundaries. As a result, there wasn’t much of a unifying scene to be found at Scene Unseen, but it was a treat to see both artists, in a one-two punch.

One of the most promising groups within the current revival of shimmery, glassy dream-pop, NYC’s DIIV put on a truly impressive show for a one-album band. While it simply doesn’t have enough material at this point for an all-killer-no-filler, hour-long set, the band showed a great ability to adapt its recordings for the stage. Upping the tempos on a handful of songs, and veering into some extended jams, it managed to subvert expectations constantly, however slightly, making for a way more compelling show than a note-for-note playthrough of its 2012 debut Oshin would have been.

“Air Conditioning” was a big highlight, rejecting the laid-back swagger of the studio version, for a fast, propulsive, borderline-motorik groove that recalled the Velvet Underground and Ride. “Wait” and “How Long Have You Known?” were similarly impressive, rounding out the slam-dunk middle section of Oshin. The big surprise of the night came with a cover of Stereolab’s “Blue Milk,” (Bradford Cox’ favorite song, perhaps), a number that fit in seamlessly with the band’s glassy, shiny guitar sound, yet pushed its penchant for droney, chugging dynamics to a new extreme.

However, the elephant in the room: a lot of DIIV’s material sounds the same. Tracks like “Past Lives,” “Earthboy,” and “Sometime,” feature slight variations on the same guitar melody, and I’m still not sure how that makes me feel.

Whether its music is modular, lazy, or just underdeveloped this early in the game, there’s no doubt the band has a lot of room for refinement. Despite that, it was pretty thrilling to witness DIIV at (hopefully) the start of its lifespan, hungry to put its potential on display.