Pop Philosophy

Electronica's new clothes

Halfway between the turntable and the stage Recently there's been a lot of discussion about -- and derision of -- how "quiet is the new loud." Norwegian folk duo Kings of Convenience took the phrase for the title of their second album, but it would've worked well for other sensitive souls like Britain's Turin Brakes and Badly Drawn Boy, Minneapolis' Motion Picture, and the kings of wimp, Glasgow's Belle & Sebastian. The idea of quietude as a new phenomenon is rather silly: Acoustic guitars have been back in fashion since the start of the "unplugged" show in the early '90s. Back then, pulling out the cord was little more than a clever way to repackage "greatest hits"; at least these new bands are starting out sans electricity. (Hey, maybe California's energy crisis will spawn a new acoustic movement.) Personally, I can't wait till loud returns as the new loud.

After witnessing two recent local shows where dance acts played rock venues, I've also discerned that electronic artists are still the new rock stars. The Squarepusher and Plaid show at the Great American sold out in a snap, and Fatboy Slim's Fillmore audience gave new meaning to the term "bumpin'." Unfortunately, all the love being thrown around couldn't disguise the fact that these stars appear to be shopping at the Emperor's New Clothes boutique.

Part of the problem is that many dance artists don't play well visually. In a small club or a venue built for dance music, this disadvantage doesn't matter: If people are there to shake a tail feather, they'll do it. But stick two guys with laptops onstage (like British duo Plaid) and you're bound to get people craning their necks to see. Maybe they should put up a sign that reads, "Pay no attention to the men in front of the curtain."

For his part, fellow Brit Squarepusher (Tom Jenkinson) was more animated, drinking liberally from a vodka bottle and yelling indecipherably between "drill 'n' bass" songs. (Yes, they sound just like the term.) But there was something odd going on in the audience. The 'Pusher elicited the biggest huzzahs when he dipped out of site and instigated blasts of white-hot noise from his console. Suddenly, his "Intelligent Dance Music" fans were reduced to Hessians at a heavy metal wank-off. Even funnier -- and more endearing -- were the hippies who tried to keep in step with his feedback spasms and strangulated beats. I was sure that somebody would need a chiropractor by the end of the night.

Fatboy Slim -- the DJ formerly known as Norman Cook -- was far more accommodating to the aging granola-crunchers at his show. (The death of Phish seems to have scattered its fans in odd directions.) But even one of the most popular DJs in the world felt the need to screw with his fans a bit, letting the beats fizzle to nothing and looping sampled dialogue ad nauseam. Strangely, the audience seemed to eat this undanceable fare up. At one point, as the phrase "Fatboy Slim is fucking" repeated endlessly, a girl behind me let out a series of riotous war whoops. I couldn't tell if she was applauding Cook's DJ prowess, his bawdy nature, or just the general act of rutting.

Monsieur Slim knows all about rock audiences; after all, he was the bassist for snarky '80s pop band the Housemartins. In his present incarnation he's translated live concert clichés to the dance stage with aplomb. Instead of shouting out "I love this job!" he writes it on a record sleeve and holds it up to the video screen camera. If a rock star yells "Hello San Francisco!" everyone smirks; when Slim scrawled "I love San Franny," the crowd went apeshit. Maybe they didn't notice that he was rifling through his ready-made signs as often as his records. Of course, it may be true that he does appreciate his vocation. After all, who wouldn't like traveling all over the world, selling hundreds of tickets at $35 a pop, and making people jump around? (In this instance, they jumped side to side; up and down, it seems, made the needle skip.)

But he'd better watch out for this new coterie of quietness. Pretty soon, sitting on the floor and nodding may become the new waving your hands in the air.

A helping howlThe fine folks at Kimo's are putting on live shows again after soundproofing the club's performance area ("The difference between "naff' and "wack,'" April 25). Unfortunately, they've got a hefty $10,000 bill to pay off. Always looking to help a friend in need, Oakland's Stork Club is putting on a benefit for Kimo's on Monday, May 14. Local bands Crime in Choir, Replicator, Built Like Alaska, Guitar vs. Gravity, and Soapbox will perform. Tickets are $5; call (510) 435-1665 for information.

 
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