There was a lot to absorb this weekend at All Points West, the Coachella-offshoot indie production at Liberty State Park. Absorbency was, in fact, a physical concern throughout the festival, which began with a day so waterlogged that patrons were practically begged to give it one more shot: your Friday ticket stub would have secured admission on Saturday and Sunday -- a bargain, for those without a pass.
Mudslides aside, this iteration of All Points West was a distinct improvement from last year’s maiden voyage. (All my gripes with that edition were publicly aired.) Ferry service was convenient and quick, the beer pens were spacious, the view remained spectacular. Jay-Z and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made for a formidable one-two punch on Friday night, and I found similar satisfaction on Saturday afternoon, when St. Vincent preceded Neko Case on the festival’s intimate middle stage.
Case’s Middle Cyclone was among the albums I included on last week’s Soundcheck list. So was Actor, by St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark. And it was illuminating to see both groups in close succession, if only because it confirmed my personal preference. I love Case’s torchy siren call, and fully appreciate her songwriting, which registers as both melodic and acutely literary. She has my deep and abiding respect.
But it’s Clark who has my number. (Only in a manner of speaking.) Her music inspires an intimately scaled astonishment. She knows her way around songcraft, but she also works at the molecular level, with elements of texture and sound. In that sense she strikes me as not unlike many jazz musicians, which may be a consequence of her upbringing -- her uncle is Tuck Andress, the guitar-playing half of Tuck & Patti -- but probably has more to do with her basic temperament. I’ve seen her perform several times (ditto that with Case, actually), and have noticed the strong pull of progress. She’s more assertive now than she was a year ago, more of a rocker, but also still her music-geeky self. To wit:
That was “Your Lips Are Red,” which closed St. Vincent’s set on a note of artfully punkish abandon. But notice how much detail she embeds in the song, whether it’s the offbeat syncopation of vocals-against-guitar (0:20 to 0:50) or the way her riff melts into static and back (1:00 to 1:30) and then back again (2:15). Watch the whole thing, because this next point hinges on her strategic use of cacophony.
At the top of this post I used the word “absorbency,” literally and figuratively. There’s another meaning of the word that I’ll invoke here, at your kind indulgence. The poet Charles Bernstein, in his influential book A Poetics, put forth a theory of versification that hinges on “absorptive” and “antiabsorptive” formal effect. For the sake of brevity, here’s a wildly irresponsible reduction and simplification of his idea: an absorptive poetics is one that comforts with logic, clarity and sensation, while an antiabsorptive poetics delivers something more like a confrontation, often with scrambled syntax or meaningful disruptions. “Absorptive & antiabsorptive works both require artifice,” he writes, “but the former may hide this while the latter may flaunt it.”
In jazz, we have a more familiar dichotomy between “inside” and “outside,” though I sometimes wonder whether those terms should finally be mothballed for good. One useful aspect of Bernstein’s theory is that the absorptive and antiabsorptive need not always be mutually exclusive, or even in direct opposition. They aren’t permanent states of being so much as strategies, or methodologies. So it isn’t strange to consider a poem as harnessing antiabsorptive elements toward an absorptive end. If we stretch the concept a bit, I’d argue that many present-day improvisers take precisely that approach.
As does St. Vincent, in the clip above. Note again the surrender to feedback that occurs around 2:15. But this time, consider it not as a noisy digression but rather, in some ways, a return to form. (She had hit on a similar effect earlier in the song.) And pay attention to the way that a consonant violin part emerges at 3:20, initially in contrast to Clark’s hammering static but then in companionable accord. When she reenters with a vocal coda -- “Your skin so fair / Your skin so fair, it’s not fair" -- the absorptive qualities of the melody are meant to brush up against the antiabsorptive tone of the lyric, with its undercurrents of envy and cynicism. (That’s my reading, anyway.)
So Clark is using both strategies of absorption in the same song, to superb effect. I think it’s worth noting, too, that she had wryly played the first measure of “The Star Spangled Banner” earlier in the set. This was sparked by the setting: she could see the Statue of Liberty from the stage. Obviously, though, there’s all kinds of ambiguity built into that gesture. She was saluting the statue, but also nodding to Jimi Hendrix, who played the song, with full antiabsorptive fervor, at some other area festival 40 years ago this month. “Just kidding,” Clark said after playing the first distortion-jacked phrase.
Which brings me finally to My Bloody Valentine, the penultimate big fish at All Points West on Saturday night. I have long been an admirer of this band, mainly on the merits of Loveless, its spectacularly layered 1991 album. Kevin Shields, the group’s resident genius, has his own uses for the antiabsorptive, though I have no idea whether he’d sanction the term. In any case, this set was proudly uningratiating and punishingly loud, with vocals blotted out by a haze of distortion. It concluded in an already infamous version of “You Made Me Realise,” imbued with a nearly 15-minute stretch of shapeless, unrelenting noise. See the clip below, which charts the initial descent:
I can’t say precisely why this felt like a stunt to me, rather than a mindblowing event, or evidence of some kind of artistic courage. (Ben Sisario weighed in with an appreciation at the Times’ ArtsBeat blog.) Was it the sheer outrageous length of the interlude? The sense of ponderous spectacle? Or maybe that, unlike St. Vincent, the band didn’t weigh its viciousness against something sly and redemptive?
I honestly don’t know. But I can report that I started to walk away, slowly, figuring (correctly) that I would feel the enveloping noise even as I tromped east across the turf. From a distance, it actually made a bit more sense, though its sonic characteristics still suggested the roar of a jet engine rather than any kind of absorptive music making. Later, when I finally got home, I brought my clothes with me into the shower. The mud had soaked completely through them.