SAN FRANCISCO — This year's Noise Pop Festival was marked by a massive influx of participating bands — so many, in fact, that deciding which shows to attend over the weekend became the real chore of the event. Between Friday evening and Sunday night, no fewer than 45 bands graced the stages of participating venues across the city.
With venues spread far and wide throughout the city — and with the continual threat of rain — navigating the Noise Pop city was a challenge, but a rewarding one.
The Church Steps took the small, cozy stage Friday night at Café DuNord, delivering mournful Americana-tinged wasteland guitar sounds, augmented by computer noises. Mike Donovan's slacker-style vocals were strained, yet impassioned, and drenched in dreary sweetness, while his partner, Chris Douglas, hunched over his computer, coaxing a variety of blips, scattered beats, and off-kilter electronic noise into the mix. Country rock foursome the Court and Spark masterfully served up tears-in-your-beer twang, creating an atmosphere of roadhouse honky-tonk. With a penchant for drone mantras, lingering notes, bass reverberating through the floorboards, and what can only be described as prog-fusion overdrive, Tarentel seemed the odd choice to headline this bill. The group's ephemeral space jam style floated off into translucent somnambulistic soundscapes that would best accompany some dark animated fantasy film.
The Bottom of the Hill was the first stop for Saturday's sonic festivities, with its afternoon show consisting of The Henry Miller Sextet, The Orange Peels, The Shins, and The Aislers Set. The Orange Peels treated the crowd to a set of jangly, glowing Cali-pop, and after a brief set change, Albuquerque, N.M.'s The Shins sauntered on stage and began bouncing through their weird amalgamation of The Cure (sans goth trappings) and neo-'60s garage psych-pop ambiance. Frontman James Mercer unloads his lyrics in a tinny, nasal falsetto that sounds like a Yankee Robert Smith. The Shins' catchy, mildly abrasive pop was further enhanced by quirky Casio plinking, resounding bass lines, and kinetic drumming. Headlining the afternoon bill was local act The Aislers Set, whose songs ranged between mid-tempo tunes that sounded like the Velvet Underground and up-tempo ditties rife with "ba-ba-ba-ba" vocal harmonies that would fit right in with the beach partiers of the late '50s.
We took a short jaunt across town to Café DuNord, where the four-band bill of Jolly!, Persephone's Bees, Fiver, and Oranger was holding down the house. The billing zoomed by, with Persephone's Bees jumping onstage and whipping out a quick set, followed by the members of Fiver, who rattled off songs nearly as quickly. The members of headliner Oranger took more care with their time onstage. Projecting sci-fi movies (Fantastic Planet, Planet of the Apes) on a sheet hung behind them, the four-piece San Francisco band bounced through poppy ditties, slunk through symphonic dream pop, and noodled around with mildly psychedelic prog ambitions. The group's set was musically tight but comically light — the drummer showed off his bright red briefs and the members tossed CDs randomly into the audience.
Bringing an unprecedented amount of beats to the festival was the lineup at The Justice League. DJ You DJ Me kicked things off with an electronic karaoke set, singing and rapping over prefab beats. Up next was No Forcefield, an eclectic electronic outfit consisting of members of Primus, ex-Skratch Pikl DJ Disc, and others and melding synth, drums, bass, and turntables into an often intoxicating, always bizarre aural stew. Disc managed to destroy Jan Hammer's "Miami Vice Theme" with his beat-juggling, and the whole crew tore apart Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" with considerable aplomb. Headliner Money Mark was in rare form, delivering a set that bordered on the sublime, with a seven-minute interlude of orchestrated feedback and harmonica playing, a balloon trumpet routine, and a mutant vocoder workout. The Beastie Boys DJ, with '70s mirrored sunglasses perched over his eyes, topped the eclectic set by reworking his hit "Hand on Your Head" into a George W. Bush tribute number, "Hamburger Head."
The fest closed out Sunday night at the swanky Bimbo's 365 Club in lower North Beach. The show was a solid affair, ranging from the throbbing funk exposition of former skater Tommy Guerrero's Jet Black Crayon to the psychedelic garage rock of Pleasure Forever. The bill was pretty even, with emphasis on textured guitar workouts and feedback regurgitation. Saint Andre came off like the Throwing Muses if they had been weaned on '60s era King Crimson, delivering songs with off-kilter titles like "Two Its-Its and a Coke," while Pleasure Forever had a stripped-down ambiance that radiated with mesmerizing intensity due to the frontman's drawl and intricate keyboard compositions. The band's centerpiece was the epic "Free Port in a Storm," which went from honky-tonk cool keyboards to flange guitar and frenetic drums.
Blonde Redhead — two Italian brothers on guitar and drums and Kazu Makino on bass and guitar — dropped a hypnotic set of sinewy Euro-trash pop-inspired bliss and seductively classic rock inspiration, albeit tweaked with an atonal sensibility. Amedeo Pace fronted many of the songs, singing in a light, airy tenor. Alternating on vocals, Makino possessed an Eastern, Björk-styled flair, with hypnotic soprano affectations that came out like softly fused screeches. Overall, this New York power trio's output reverberated with cinematic depth, ranging from the minimalist to the Grand Guignol and leaving the audience in a mesmerized state of euphoria.