all words: Mitchell London
all photos: Julian Vu
The first fifth of this set was the audio equivalent of college fraternity hazing. During this phase, I learned from Ducktails that just as there is an infinite number of ways to skin a cat, there is an infinite number of ways to sample that sound. Erratic bass drum beats, a wide range of polyrhythmic cuckoo clock samples, the occasional screeching squawk – everything was on the table, as long as it made your neck hair stand on end. I began to theorize that all of the world’s Roland-sampler-owning, guitar-playing bloopwavers have conspired to deploy the world’s most sadistic inside joke.
But calamity yielded to wobbly guitar and modest singing. Like Wavves, Ducktails celebrates laziness and fetishizes boredom. With songs like “Couch Surfer” and lyrics like “if you want to hang, you know I’m free all day” (repeated ad nauseum), it is a small wonder that more audience members didn’t decide to leave the 9:30 Club, go home, microwave some Tostino’s Pizza Rolls, and watch Independence Day on TBS for the billionth time. And throughout the show, Ducktails looked like that’s what he’d rather be doing, only moving muscles below the neck when absolutely necessary.
Despite these frequent frustrations, there were intermittent moments when he connected, when his sounds lined up just right. The release was not quite worth the build, but these genuinely pretty moments solidified his oddball indie cred. By the end of his set, the club was about two fifths full and excited for the next two acts.
Casino vs. Japan:
I thought that Ducktails was impersonal, but Casino vs. Japan elevated the act of being impersonal to an artform. Seated in a chair behind his mixer-and-laptop rig, occasionally playing a keyboard in his lap, CvJ unleashed an unremitting wave of reverb and processed feedback. The effect was something similar to OOIOO without the quirk, Boris without the chord changes, Jandek without the serial-killer intrigue. It was a wall of white noise, punctuated occasionally by a kick drum, delivered by someone who has the stage presence of Thomas Pynchon and Harper Lee’s lovebaby. It borrowed from the Pixies’ loud-QUIET-loud dynamic, but forgot the middle step. It was not fun.
Like Ducktails, CvJ’s set picked up as it progressed, incorporating some heavy drums-and-bass rhythms and by the second act, a dubby electric piano sound. I got the sense that if he were to play for another three hours, eventually he would drop high-drama noise and the cross the divide from non-dance dance music to earnest dance music. But by the time his opening slot for Deerhunter ended, he didn’t quite make it there.
Deerhunter’s self-ascribed genre, “ambient punk,” is a pretty apt description of their live sound. Unlike straight punk, Deerhunter obscures its sound behind a sometimes dense layer of noise, guitar pedals, and reverb. Unlike straight punk, which wears it’s aggression on its sleeve, Deerhunter often uses a build-and-release strategy, sticking on one chord or one progression for minutes before bursting in a wave of aggression. This technique was employed best on set-highlight “Nothing Ever Happened,” which held a five-second riff for at least five minutes before unleashing its downright tantric coda. Between almost every song, lead singer Bradford Cox froze a multilayered snippet of his voice with the help of a highly-used reverb pedal, adding to the sense of continuity throughout the performance.
Cox’s voice, sometimes coy and sometimes arresting is the true star of the show. He can push it to sound like a blunt punk-rock instrument or finesse it to create autoharmonic backing choirs. His voice, coupled with Lockett Pundt’s signature guitar sound, Josh Fauver’s driving bass, and Moses Archuletas krautishly precise drums combine to make the four-piece version of Deerhunter sound larger than ever when they decide to rev the rock engine. The best songs in the set – encore “Spring Hall Convert,” “Nothing Ever Happened,” and “Revival” – were the ones that best capitalized on this synergy. It also helped that the band was genuinely happy to be there, proclaiming their love for the 9:30 Club, the crowd (which added 50% to the quality of the venue, Cox joked), and – swept up in the political energy of DC – cracking wise on Gore Vidal.
As many reviewers before me have noted, Deerhunter’s sound is much rawkier live than it is on record, and songs like “Helicopter” take on a slightly noisier and more aggressive edge. “Helicopter” and many of the songs in the Halcyon Digest-heavy set have been stretched out to fit the build-and-release model. It seemed that every song they played was either extremely concise and tight (like Microcastle’s “Little Ones”) or blown out for dramatic effect (like Jay Reatard ode “He Would Have Laughed”). Regardless of what they were selling, the audience was buying.