Call the Zookeepers

The elephant known as Noise Pop has wandered into the living room

You can't escape it. It's everywhere you go. Your hairstylist, your dentist, your proctologist -- they all want to know about this year's Noise Pop. And if you grumble and grouse and say, "There's really nothing to see this year," they look at you funny, as if you'd said briefs are better than boxers.

Every year people run around screaming, "Noise Pop! Noise Pop!" as if Jesus himself had come to town, when in fact the now 10-year-old event has become little more than a concentrated series of good shows featuring lots of bands that come through S.F. on a regular basis, a few up-and-comers for the kids, and a gaggle of old stalwarts for Gramps and Granny. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the event -- unless you hate long lines, a mildly insiderish feel, and plenty of fat-necked frat boys who stand and stare at bands as if they were taking a long piss after downing a case of Bud.

Festival co-producers Kevin Arnold and Jordan Kurland are both fine folks. They've handled the extensive growing pains of Noise Pop with aplomb. My one major criticism of this year's festival -- that the local acts seem overly familiar -- may be more the scene's fault than theirs. The most exciting Bay Area groups these days seem to fall into punk or experimental circles; for whatever reason, Noise Pop chose to book likable but oft-seen acts such as the Aislers Set, the Moore Brothers, and the Pattern instead. Overlooked bands such as the Coach Whips, Erase Errata, and Numbers may not fit into the genre of noise pop, but the same could be said of the Magnetic Fields, which headlined a sold-out show a couple years back.

For me, Noise Pop has always been about the little moments. For example, back in 1998, the unknown trio Slower Than was so happy to be onstage -- let alone the one at the Great American Music Hall -- that its members set a record for most hugs in a 20-minute set. Two years ago singer/ songwriter/curmudgeon Franklin Bruno forgot his lyrics midsong and a girl sprawled on the floor below him cried out, "Oh no!" Such moments let you know that the festival can be a big deal -- for musicians andfans.

In that spirit, I suggest checking out a few of the less-touted acts at this year's fete. The Lilys, the epitome of noise pop when the band began back in 1991, ditched the bludgeoning guitar noise for a skewed, '60s retro-pop sound for its last album. This show should be a good preview of the group's next incarnation and record, due this summer.

Spain's Migala may be one of the most out-of-place acts at Noise Pop. The mellow sextet twists synthesizer noises and found sounds around slow acoustic guitar and pretty accordion melodies, all the while moaning like someone just ran over a dog.

Austin cult hero Daniel Johnston has been known to sing about dead dogs -- as well as about Casper the Friendly Ghost, Satan the card shark, and speedy the motorcycle (in a song later covered by Yo La Tengo and Mary Lou Lord). He's also one of the few rock icons to get a major label contract afterhe'd spent time in a loony bin. His live shows are infrequent, unpredictable, and charming -- just don't make any sudden moves.

Local all-gal quartet Vervein has been together for only a year but is already making quite a buzz (without sounding anything like the Strokes). Featuring ex-members of Smitten and Shackleton, the group understands that guitar noise can sound grand when layered as high as a beehive hairdo.

If your idea of a good time is watching a documentary about a suicidal British folkie with a huge cult following, check out A Skin Too Few -- The Days of Nick Drake, one of several excellent films screening during the festival. For further Noise Pop info, go to www.noisepop.com.

Stairway to heavenPaul Baloff may not have been as famous as Merle Haggard, but his fatal stroke on Feb. 2 deprived the Bay Area of a heavy metal icon. Baloff, 41, was one of the founding members of S.F. band Exodus, a forefather of the thrash-metal scene along with Slayer, Megadeath, and Metallica. (The latter's guitarist, Kirk Hammett, started out in Exodus before defecting in 1983.) Inspired by British metal groups such as Iron Maiden, Exodus and Baloff fashioned a new kind of metal: faster, darker, and harsher. The band's first LP, Bonded by Blood, remains a classic of its kind. Following that record's release in 1985, Baloff quit the band over personality conflicts, only to reunite with his pals in 1997.

The remaining members of Exodus say they'll give Baloff a "suitably metal" send-off. To help, send donations to: The Mechanics Bank, The Paul Baloff Memorial Fund, 9996 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530.

 
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