Toro Y Moi w/ Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Ava Luna
Wednesday, September 14
Better than: Getting my phone stolen on the way to the show.
In the age of the wireless router, traces of our recent cultural past (’80s pop videos, ’90s Reading Rainbow episodes, Aughts Geocities pages, and so on) remain with us almost indefinitely, but the lives of the many continuously forming and re-forming microgenres are—if not nasty and brutal—almost always short. Perhaps this explains the Hobbesian mentality that pervades the work of pigfuck revivalists. A few bands within that bludgeoning genre were profiled in a recent issue of the Voice, and the piece ends with members of two of the featured bands distilling two years of the chillwave backlash into a single paragraph:
“It just seems lazy intellectually and it seems lazy politically too,” says Barry. “That music just seems like support for some stupid lifestyle, rather than art.” Adds Mark Perro, guitarist and vocalist for The Men, “I don’t think we know any [chillwave] bands, but fuck those bands [Laughs]. Having not even heard them, we don’t care.”
Art, it should be noted, for these bands constitutes playing “unapologetically hideous” guitar riffs that “can really clear a room,” a self-congratulatory attempt at subversion that for my money is far more childish than recreating songs from fragments of half-remembered elementary school tunes, as chillwave’s easiest targets sometimes do. So in the false dichotomy between nostalgia and nostalgie de la boue, I’ll take the former every day, and that’s how I wound up at Webster Hall on a beautiful late summer evening, waiting for Toro Y Moi, the most consistently talented and stylistically diverse of the chillwave’s breakout stars to take the stage. (There’s more to be said about the ludicrous fetishization of unswept streets and untuned guitars passing for diligent politics, but for now I’ll leave it at that.)
When Toro finally arrives, following a slowly building set from replacement-level indie trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra, he wastes little time (a simple “Yo” serves as sufficient introduction) before launching into “New Beat,” a standout track off February’s Underneath the Pine; backed by a full band (bass, drums, guitar), he alternated between keys and an effects board. If “Yo,” was the introduction, then “New Beat” became the mission statement, with a strong bass riff that was loud enough to overpower the shuffling synth melody and “Don’t keep it all in your head” lyrics addressing the body, the half of the Cartesian false dichotomy that this music sometimes neglects. But tonight, even before the funk breakdown that would finished the song, it was clear that we would be expected to dance.
This being the case, the addition of a strong, tight live drummer greatly helped, his backbeat turning many of the tunes (most from the aforementioned LP) almost into semi-psychedelic Nuggets, drifting through the last forty years of pop history. Still, the dancing didn’t really pick up until the band entered lead single “Still Sound,” pushing the track to the point of incomprehensibility before pulling it back, taking the bridge to another funk breakdown. Although Toro and his chillwave peers were once able to endear themselves to American audiences with their amateur looseness (especially notable in contrast to the often formalist British hauntology scene), amateurism can quickly turn into an end in itself, and these flashes of virtuosity suggest that even in this constantly buzzing, blog-dependent state of nature, Toro has the potential to develop as an artist bigger than any of the continuously changing microgenres into which he might dabble.
Critical bias: You know there’s a pennant race going on when I start referring to bands in terms of replacement level.
Random notebook dump: As much as I might enjoy some of the music, chillwave dancing truly is indefensible.