The past provides comfort for many indie-rock elders; witness the recent spate of reunions, bands touring on “best album” performances, and artists rifling through back catalogs for new reissues. But three well-established, pioneering indie acts — the Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, and Spiral Stairs, headliners at Treasure Island Music Festival– are refusing to simply give in to the past.
For the last decade, the Lips have been a pop culture mainstay, due mainly to their eye-candy–laden live spectacle, a memorable, feel-good experience of the highest order. Yet after years of uplift, frontman Wayne Coyne throws a wrench into the party machine on Embryonic, the first double LP of the Lips' quarter-century career. It's dark, noisy, distorted, and uncontrolled. It's exceptionally weird (even by their standards). And it's a stunner.
Opener “Convinced of the Hex” announces Embryonic's sinister aims with skronky guitar noise and discomfiting organ that melts into an anarchic psychedelic jam. The clanging continues through “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” and reaches a fever pitch in the first half of the instrumental “Aquarius Sabotage,” which comes down with gentle strings and twinkling vibes. That calm quickly gives way to the menacing bassline, death-obsessed imagery, and clawing cacophony of “See the Leaves.”
Occasionally, light peeks in. “If” is an odd, gentle lullaby launching with the line “People are evil, it's true,” while “The Impulse,” with its soft robotic vocals and billowy synths, is strangely Air-like. But Embryonic is prevailingly troubled, and sonically unlike anything the Lips have previously offered. “I wish I could go back in time,” Coyne warbles in the creepy-lovely “Evil.” Creatively, though, he can't (or won't), and that works to his great benefit.
Long-running Hoboken trio Yo La Tengo destroys the past on the cover of its new Popular Songs, its 12th full-length in 25 years. The artwork depicts a battered cassette — a useless relic of a bygone era — bearing the title “Ghosts Don't Always Want to Come Back.” Granted, a few stylistic ghosts return on the melodic jangle-pop of “Avalon or Someone Very Similar,” the mesmerizing 15-minute guitar freakout “And the Glitter Is Gone,” and the moody, minimalist drone of “By Twos,” a reminder of the Velvet Underground's constant influence on this band.
Pleasant surprises abound, too. Lead track “Here to Fall” fashions atmospheric soul out of filmic strings, wah-wah-ed electric piano, background fuzz, crashing cymbals, and frontman Ira Kaplan's sweetly hovering voice. “If It's True” — a charming duet between spouses Kaplan and drummer-singer Georgia Hubley — is classic '60s Motown-pop. And “Periodically Double or Triple” pushes the Beatles' “Taxman” into funkier, swampier territory. Such variations to the trio's eclectic repertoire are welcome. And even when Yo La Tengo leans on familiar textures, it rarely feels like the band is traveling well-worn ground.
Guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg will revisit former success when he reunites with his old band, '90s indie-rock icons Pavement. The group is touring the U.S. nearly 10 years after its acrimonious split and 21 years after Kannberg and childhood pal Stephen Malkmus formed the group in their native Stockton. Following Pavement's demise, Kannberg fronted Preston School of Industry. But now that he's looking backward, he has reactivated his Pavement-era nickname for his proper solo debut, The Real Feel.
The chords and solos that feed opener “True Love” flash back on the craggy, shambolic guitars of Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. But precious little here sounds like anything Kannberg has been involved with before. The Real Feel is being touted as a divorce record, and there's plenty of angst, regret, and melancholy in his deeply crooned words. “Did you realize that was betrayal?” he intones in “Call the Ceasefire.” On “A Mighty Mighty Fall,” he sings straightforwardly, if a bit awkwardly, “You're on a course for a mighty fall/The divorce was no surprise.” Often, the music mirrors his laments — late-night, booze-soaked, midtempo alt.country-blues. Semi-acoustic strums and restrained electric noodling rub up against weepy pedal steel and gingerly tinkled piano. Occasionally, the self-pity can get a bit ponderous. Fortunately Kannberg breaks up the barstool mopery with the plucky, jangly “Maltese T” and the dirty, bruised “Subiaco Shuffle.” If he's engaged with the old here, it's on a personal rather than musical level. Sure, a Pavement reunion is probably too tempting to pass up, but like the Lips and Yo La Tengo, Spiral Stairs hasn't given up on the future.