Sure, the July 19-21 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago is your one-stop shop to see Belle and Sebastian, Robyn, Earl Sweatshirt, Stereolab, Mavis Staples, Haim and Kurt Vile. But it’s the lesser-known (and more out-there) acts that deliver the real excitement.
Standing on the Corner is the collaboration of Gio Escobar and Jasper Marsalis, two jazz/rap polymaths from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Their mind-blowing Red Burns project is a freeform response to a world crashing headlong, an hour-long, continuous track that layers fragments of conversation, lyrics, background noise, glitchy vocals and distortion effects. “Some moments are serene,” Sheldon Pearce wrote in the Pitchfork.com review of the album. “Others are jagged. Some seem to happen just out of the frame — the feelings associated with the minutiae of Medina life. Some are panoramic. There’s spoken word à la the Last Poets, and hypemanisms, and soul singing, and Puerto Rican music.”
Made up of Laura Lee (bass, vocals), Mark Speer (guitar) and Donald “DJ” Johnson (drums), Khruangbin cite inspiration from ’60s/’70s Thai cassettes they listened to on long car journeys to rehearsal in the Texan countryside. The trio conjures a surprisingly cohesive and sinuous sound from classic psych, funk and soul sounds from Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East and India. Very much a sexier (and shaved) ZZ Top.
London four-piece Black Midi are as ambitious as they are bratty, with songs that recall early Minutemen and prefigure future Devo. Critics are falling over themselves to describe their sound. Paste’s Steven Edelstone turned in this: “I’ll admit this at the beginning — I have no idea what Black Midi sounds like. After seeing them at SXSW this year, I tried, and failed, to nail it down: ‘They’re simultaneously an art rock act, a post-punk group, a noise band, a free-jazz ensemble and an improvisational outfit that’s somehow both tight and loose at the same time.’ I later described them as ‘Parquet Courts-meets-a-free-jazz-combo-with-Donny-from-The Wild Thornberries-as-a-lead-singer’ and meant it as a compliment. A friend who disliked their KEXP session from Iceland Airwaves 2018 (one of the only videos of the band available online until recently) said it sounded like two layered Korn songs mixed by a pretentious art school kid.”
Chicago’s own Lala Lala is Lillie West processing her grief, paranoia and sobriety into shimmering, ragged pop songs. A driving force behind the current Chicago DIY scene, West experienced the death of a friend, a home invasion and a personal struggle with addiction since her 2016 debut, Sleepyhead. Last year’s resulting The Lamb roars like a lion and stands as one of the best indie rock releases since Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Style.
In its 14th year, the internationally recognized festival presents 40-plus bands over the course of three days in Chicago’s Union Park. The Pitchfork Festival aims to corral the best in new and emerging music.