Day for Night 2016 Rundown, Pt. 1: Lower Dens + Clams Casino + From Beyond + Jerk + MNYNMS + Vacation Eyes + Tobacco + RZA feat. Stone Mecca + Oneohtrix Point Never
And I’ll admit to having some mixed feelings about it; on the one hand, I’m psyched, because, I mean, I’ll get to see the festival that not only won in this year’s Houston Press Music Awards but which has gotten tons of glowing praise outside of our big-small city for its cool melding of light-based art and off-the-beaten-path music.
On the other, well, for one thing: I’m old. Going to music festivals, these days, kills my knees and knocks me out cold for a couple of days afterwards; granted, most of those are outdoor festivals, in the goddamn summertime, so there’s that, but still, I’m not the young, unbreakable kid I once was who could happily dive into the pit at Lollapalooza, not caring that there’s a foot of mud at the bottom and a gigantic mass of sweaty, sometimes violent people all around. I’m getting too old for that shit.
For another, this year will be the first time my kid will be coming with me to something like this. Okay, that’s actually not strictly true — once upon a time, I took a much-younger version of said kid to the sadly-departed Westheimer Block Party, but we only stuck around for an hour or so, because she was little, and everything was really damn loud. Interestingly, the Block Party’s issues with the city when it came to staging a festival on Westheimer in the then-newly-gentrified Montrose ended up being the catalyst for Free Press Summer Fest, the organizers of which have now moved on to Day for Night.
So it’s kind of fitting, really, that this is the music festival she comes to, years and years after first being exposed to live music at the Block Party. And I think she’ll be blown away by the spectacle of the whole thing, with all the installations and people and music; she’s mostly along because she dearly loves Kaskade and Little Dragon, but I think she’s going to love all of it.
At the same time, though, I’m freaking terrified to have her along. She’s a pretty mature, smart kid, but she’s still a kid, and the paranoid parental side of me halfway wants to handcuff her arm to mine for the whole day like we’re in a buddy movie where the by-the-book cop reluctantly has to work with the criminal. I’m not going to be able to let her out of my sight, and that’s got me nervous as hell.
Anyway, that’s where I’m at right now: excited but nervous/terrified, psyched but somehow already feeling exhausted.
I’m pretty sure that’s enough blah-blah, so let’s get to it, shall we? Here we go with the first of our series of rundowns/previews of as many of the musicians & bands playing DFN as we can cram in before the day of the actual show:
First things first: I’ve been a fan of Jana Hunter, frontwoman of Lower Dens, for what feels like a really long damn time. I remember dragging my wife to see Hunter’s old-old band, Matty & Mossy, when they played at Amy’s Ice Cream (I think?) on a teeny-tiny makeshift stage at the back of the store, and that both of us were utterly blown away by the band’s tight-yet-chaotic, noisy, broken-pop squall, and by Hunter’s bluesy, powerful, intense vocals; she was a freaking kid back then, and looked way too small and unassuming for that sound to be coming from that mouth.
And yet, it was most definitely her. Fast-forward a lot of years, and Hunter’s called Baltimore home for probably longer than she ever lived here, Matty & Mossy are long gone (but not forgotten), she’s led a second life as a solo artist off and on, she’s shaved her head, and her sound with Lower Dens, the band she’s led for the last six years has definitely mutated quite a bit. On last year’s, Escape From Evil, the noisier elements have dropped by the wayside, for the most part, leaving the band with a post-punk, New Wave-tinged, poppy, often extremely danceable sound that’s stark and warm at the same time, with Hunter’s vocals providing a beautiful, delicate-but-not-fragile focus for the bumping bass, swirling keys, and minimalist, deliberate guitar lines.
Listening, the Talking Heads come to mind (albeit with less of that band’s manic energy), as do the Cocteau Twins, ’90s shoegaze-dance act Curve, and ’80s torch-song purveyors Yaz, and despite my love of both Hunter’s solo work — which is very different — and the long-ago Matty & Mossy stuff, yeah, it works pretty amazingly well. Check out the sleek, retro-ish video for new single “Real Thing,” below, for proof.
[Lower Dens plays at 5:10PM on Sat., December 17th, at the Green Stage.]
And here we are, with the first in the pile of EDM-ish folks playing Day for Night this year — not that the EDM stuff is a surprise, considering the general vibe of the festival itself, but I was surprised this popped up so early in the list.
That said, Clams Casino is no dancefloor banger or trap artist; rather, he’s a hip-hop producer for folks like A$AP Rocky & Mac Miller — the former of which, by the by, appears on Clams’ debut full-length, 32 Levels, along with Vince Staples, Mikky Ekko, Lil B, Sam Dew, Kelela, and Future Islands frontman Samuel Herring(!). On the album, Clams (real name Michael Volpe, and for the record, I’d never heard of the dish “clams casino” ’til I tried Googling this guy) methodically, carefully builds these atmospheric, murky tracks that sound like they could serve as the soundtrack for some spooky indie horror flick, even when somebody like Staples or Rocky steps in with a verse.
There’s a whole lot of Massive Attack here, to be sure, and some definite Tricky influences, besides. Really, though, the strongest resemblance is to actual soundtrack work by folks like John Carpenter or Angelo Badalamenti. It’s spooky and strange and sometimes seriously beautiful and hypnotic, with some of the instrumentals taking an M83-ish track, and damn, I’m liking it.
[Clams Casino plays at 5:20PM on Sat., December 17th, at the Blue Stage.]
Switching things up a good damn bit, now… I’ve had a soft spot for this band since I first heard ’em, in part because, hey, how can I not like a band that writes songs referencing H.P. Lovecraft’s classic proto-horror stories (see “The Color Out Of Space,” in particular, or, hell, the band’s freaking name)?
From Beyond are awesomely sludgy and heavy, but not in too over-the-top a way — this isn’t metalcore or anything even remotely related, but rather old-school-influenced, straight-up doom/sludge/stoner-rawk with a fixation on unspeakable horrors, witches, and the apocalypse. The heaviness is leavened, too, by a dose of menacing psych-rock that runs throughout, with hints of Hawkwind-style spacerock lurking. There’s a throwback feel to a lot of the band’s music, and hey, I’m absolutely okay with that, considering it’s throwing backwards towards Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Rainbow, the aforementioned Hawkwind, and the like. Plus, they’ve got one of the best, hardest-hitting drummers I’ve ever seen in Anthony Vallejo (whom the long-memoried might remember from his days in Omotai), so that’s a nice bonus.
Sadly, it seems the band no longer calls H-town home but has moved northwestwards up to Austin, but dangit, I refuse to not think of ’em as hometown boys. I’m psyched to hear they’ve got a new album in the works, too; it’s been too damn long since The Color Out Of Space came out back in 2012. Glad to hear it, y’all.
[From Beyond plays at 6:30PM on Sat., December 17th, at the Yellow Stage.]
Okay, so Jerk is hands down one of the most unique, most intriguing bands I’ve heard this past year, from here (which, yes, they are) or from anywhere. On the band’s one (excellent) EP so far, bandmates Austin Smith, Zach Alderman, and Vicki Lynn have taken elements of pop, funky soul, and reggae, mashing ’em all together into a rubbery-yet-cohesive ball of sound that’s equal parts Talking Heads, Britpop, X Ambassadors, Gorillaz, and Reptar. If that doesn’t sound amazingly cool to you, well, you’re a fool who hates joy and fun, and I’m sorry.
The songs grind and bump up against one another, riding bass and synth lines that pop and swing back and forth, and Smith’s vocals shift smoothly from loverman croon to Byrne-ian weirdness with barely a backwards glance. On “Delicacy,” the band downshifts Smith’s voice to great effect, with the end result almost being like a DJ Screw remix of a Talking Heads song, and on “Stand Tall,” there’s a bit towards the close where it feels like you’ve dropped unexpectedly into a never-released Radiohead track (and that’s no bad thing, to me).
If you’d tried to describe this band to me — yes, like I’m trying to do to you right now — well, I’d probably have laughed in your face, so I get the skepticism. Still, it does manage to fit together, and stunningly well, at that. As proof, I present the band’s video for “Accidents,” which is utterly mesmerizing, showing keyboardist Vicki Lynn in a weirdly Amy Sedaris-ish light, putting on her makeup and making crazy faces for the mirror and the audience while the song bumps and shimmies along behind. Enjoy…
[Jerk plays at 9:50PM on Sun., December 18th, at the Yellow Stage.]
Another Houston act, albeit a very, very different one from either From Beyond or Jerk — darkly alluring electro-pop trio MNYNMS (which is apparently meant to be pronounced “manynames,” but which I keep transposing in my head and reading as “MinnieMouse”; sorry about that, y’all…) appeared out of nowhere a couple of years back and have been getting a lot of attention both locally and elsewhere, and rightly so.
Their music is impressive in its stark, glacial style, merging early Goldfrapp-esque iciness with lush, murky synths and gently bumping beats, and they throw themselves into it pretty much completely; no half-measures here. There’s a resemblance to vintage ’80s electro-pop, to be sure, but MNYNMS manages to make it sound contemporary, doing a better job of modernizing the sound than a lot of better-known acts have been able to do.
Most of what I’ve heard from the group so far as been from their most recent Rite of Passage EP, but they’ve got some earlier stuff, too, which seems to be more straight-up ambient than the more recent releases. Think Dead Can Dance or Cocteau Twins, and you’ll be closer to their mark, there; it’s interesting to look back and see how MNYNMS have evolved already, then wonder where they’re headed next…
[MNYNMS plays at 4:40PM on Sat., December 17th, at the Yellow Stage.]
Houston being Houston, it’s not all that common for people who are already pretty well-known in some musical genre or scene (well, other than country, maybe) to move here. I don’t mean that a slam on the Houston scene, because we’ve got one hell of a vibrant, thriving, creative scene going here; it’s just that we’re not the music mecca in the eyes of the world that, say, Seattle, Austin, NYC, or Athens are or have been over the years. We do our thing, and mostly nobody cares outside of the Beltway, and y’know, whatever. I’m fine with that.
So I was pretty surprised when Jenny Hoyston, formerly of excellent San Francisco post-punks Errase Errata, popped up in H-town and started making music. And by “making music,” I mean “joined up with a bunch of Houston music luminaries to create a bona-fide supergroup,” because the other members of Vacation Eyes happen to be Mlee Marie of Hearts of Animals, John Baldwin of The Wild Moccasins (and the late, lamented Teenage Kicks), and Mars Varela of The Busy Kids, all of whom are awesome in their own right.
There’s not a lot to hear from the band just yet, unfortunately, but I like what I have heard, mostly live tracks and a couple of videos; like Hoyston’s previous band, Vacation Eyes’ music still lurks in the post-punk realm, but with more of a swirling, trance-inducing feel, reminiscent of classic ’60s/’70s psych-rock. And then, of course, there’s Mlee’s saxophone, which adds an extra layer of strangeness on top of the Rough Trade-tinted prog-punk framework. Out of everybody playing Day for Night this year, Vacation Eyes is seriously one of three or four bands I have to see.
[Vacation Eyes plays at 3:05PM on Sun., December 18th at the Green Stage.]
Full disclosure: going into this, I had no idea what Pennsylvanian Tobacco was about, or even if it was a band, as opposed to a guy and some electronics (it’s the latter, it turns out). So I was a little leery, really. The only things I’d read about Tobacco were that he had something to do with Black Moth Super Rainbow and that he liked to record stuff to cassette, then take those recorded tracks, put ’em on a sampler, and build tracks from that — which is kind of a neat thing to do, to me.
So with that being the one factoid on this guy, I went into new album Sweatbox Dynasty, and, um, whoa. What the ever-living fuck? Basically, Tobacco is what Beck might sound like on a lot of serious drugs (or not needing those drugs, which is a bit frightening), messy and disjointed and lo-fi and dense and still somehow pretty addictive. I’ve got no freaking clue what he’s singing/muttering about, mostly because I can’t make out the words beneath the noise, but I’m finding that hell, I don’t even care. The scuffed-up, scratched-out, fuzzy-edged sounds are enough for me, in all their fucked-up analog glory.
And now, in the interests of disturbing the fuck out of you (well, some of you, at least), I’ve put the video below for “Human Om,” off Sweatbox Dynasty. Because some things just can’t be unseen.
[Tobacco plays at 4:15PM on Sat., December 17th at the Blue Stage.]
RZA feat. Stone Mecca
Who doesn’t know who RZA is? No, seriously — I’m asking, because it seems really freaking insane to me, at this point, that there could be some music fan out there who’s got no idea who the Wu-Tang Clan or the guy who pretty much created the Wu are. If this is you, well, I’m glad you enjoy listening to nothing but the sound of rocks smashing together, or whatever other esoteric sound occupies your time.
For the rest: holy shit, RZA. This guy has been partly or fully responsible for a solid 1/4 of all the hip-hop I’ve ever loved, from the Wu-Tang to Gravediggaz to his solo albums to Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx to Watch the Throne. Hell, he even played the Blind Master in the only halfway decent G.I. Joe movie.
The man is a real-live innovator in the realm of hip-hop, and beyond that, in music in general. His production style alone changed the world of hip-hop, sending it in a direction it’d never really gone before, and you can feel it everywhere, seriously. Shea Serrano explains it better than I ever could in The Rap Year Book, where he declared “C.R.E.A.M.” the most influential rap song of 1993, and if you haven’t yet read his book, you really need to. I’m nowhere near as entertaining as he is, though, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it that the RZA is a legend.
As for the Stone Mecca side of things, they’re a “future soul” band that I think is touring as RZA’s backing band, essentially. That’s no bad thing, considering the awesomely low-down, soulful funk they create; honestly, RZA doing his thing in front of an actual funk/soul band, rather than samples, feels like the evolution of where the Wu-Tang sound was going all along. I’m really excited to see what the hell this looks and sounds like, y’all.
[RZA feat. Stone Mecca plays at 7:10PM on Sun., December 18th at the Green Stage.]
Oneohtrix Point Never
This one took me a little while to wrap my head around, I’ll admit it. In part, it’s because Oneohtrix Point Never is one of those goddamn frustrating people who does all the art; all of it, from music to videos to drawing to games to whatever the hell else he (OPN is a guy named Daniel Lopatin) feels like doing. I can’t do stuff like that, so yeah, I tend to get stuck there and have a hard time getting past it.
Once I did, though… Oneohtrix Point Never is all over the electronic-music map, drifting blissfully from chilled-out minimal ambience to kitchen-sink stutter-start layerings of sound upon sound upon frenetic sound. Half the time I’m reminded of LIMB’s The Shape of Punk for Some or Four Tet’s glitchy electronicized compositions, especially on the heavily-layered tracks, and a lot of the rest of the time I can’t help but think of retro anime soundtracks — “Mutant Standard,” for one, off brilliantly-titled new album Garden of Delete, is like a forgotten track from the Akira soundtrack.
Whichever direction he’s headed at any given time, it’s hard to turn away. OPN’s one massively creative guy, and I find myself listening, fascinated, as he explores every sound that meanders blithely through his skull.
[Oneohtrix Point Never plays at 6:35PM on Sat., December 17th at the Blue Stage.]
Alright, that’s all I’ve got time for for now; more to come, so check back…
(Photos [top to bottom]: Lower Dens; Clams Casino; From Beyond; Jerk; MNYNMS; Vacation Eyes; Tobacco; RZA; Oneohtrix Point Never.)