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Pygmalion Festival reviewed!

| September 27, 2010

The 6th annual Pygmalion Music Festival opened Wednesday with Janelle Monáe, Of Montreal, and Built To Spill — all on the same night. Of Montreal and Built to Spill were at roughly the same time, in fact – an act of schedule juggling that made fans and festival organizers alike crazy. But that bit of timing had the unexpected benefit of providing an interesting contrast in indie-rock styles.

Something disastrous would have had to happen to cause either the Of Montreal or Built To Spill shows to be less than first-rate. Nothing did, although Of Montreal suffered under the burden of playing in a venue (The Canopy Club) that has lousy sound and a stage too small to accommodate their theatrics. And theatrics they had: giant fish with gas masks and ray guns that gave way to unidentifiably masked creatures who crowded the stage; costumes, lighting, altogether a pop spectacle. Of Montreal’s music is integral to the spectacle, although whatever symbolic or metaphorical thought frontman Kevin Barnes had that linked shooting skull-headed aliens during “Suffer For Fashion” escaped me. But the show was fun, fey to the point of twee, bouncy, high-energy. It was also, ultimately, lightweight. The music was too similar to inspire; the show too over-the-top to genuinely engage.

Going from Of Montreal to Built To Spill was to live the Monty Python segue, “And now for something completely different.” Where Of Montreal sparkled with style, Built To Spill looked as if they dressed for the show by picking the least dirty-looking T-shirts and jeans off the floor. Where Of Montreal played to and with the audience, Built To Spill ignored theirs, playing with their eyes shut and heads down. Where Of Montreal were light, catchy fun, Built To Spill were all big rock chords and guitars. Like Of Montreal, they’ve been around more than 14 years and so are undeniably good at what they do. They are stone solid, with a crisp rhythm section and deftly handled guitars. Live, they lose that distinctive sound that screams “indie!” and Doug Martsch’s vocals are stronger, the whine of the studio albums less pronounced — clearly meant to be seen live. If you’re lucky, they’ll cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.” It’s incredible.

However, the hands-down star of the first night of Pygmalion – arguably the star of the festival, in fact – was Monáe. Opening for Of Montreal, she was everything an up-and-coming artist can be but rarely is: exciting, innovative, skilled. From Atlanta, Monáe is equal parts George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, James Brown (her use of the robe at the end of “Tightrope” is an homage par excellence), Ziggy-era Bowie, nu-soul, old soul, hip-hop, classic standards, rock. This is smart, sophisticated, high-energy music that wouldn’t be possible if Monáe weren’t such an agile singer. Nothing throws her: not rapid-fire vocals, not the standard “Smile,” not hitting high, sustained notes after dancing, not even being saddled with a room that throws so much bass and drums, the guitarist might as well stay at home. Monáe released her debut, The ArchAndroid (Atlantic), in May, and opening for Of Montreal has helped her. (Kevin Barnes came out to do a song with her; she returned the favor during the Of Montreal set.) But it doesn’t particularly help Of Montreal. That’s just how good Monáe is, even this early in her career. Don’t miss her.

— M. S. Dodds

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Category: Featured, Live Reviews, Weekly

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