Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Atlas Sound

Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, CA
November 3, 2009

Bradford Cox is playing hooky from his day job with Deerhunter.

I definitely think of Deerhunter as a quote-unquote experimental rock band because they do question & expand the usual boundaries of the form. It's just that they often do so in stealthy ways, loading relatively conventional songs chock full of Trojan-horse surprises.

But that's another day's discussion. Tonight, Mr. Cox is engaged in his *other* project, Atlas Sound. I've spent a lot of time with the "Let the Blind Lead..." album, where the "experimentation" is overt & obvious. There, the "band" does not produce "songs," so much as aural tableaux vivants. Dream-ish snapshots, half-obscured, evocative & lush. The new album, "Logos," is somewhat less insistent on its own iconoclasm, but still: Altas Sound is processed sound, distorted & manipulated beyond easy recognition, repeatedly confounding of the listener's expectations. Delicious. Hell, it's magically delicious.

In Atlas Sound, Mr. Cox wields the fact of recording & production itself as his primary musical instrument. There's a lengthy tradition for this sort of thing, & he has described this project as a venue for ideas ill-suited to the usual rock band format.

Well, OK fair enough. But I'd been wondering: now that he's touring Atlas Sound as a rock band, how does its essence translate back to a live performance context? Based on tonight's show, the short answer is: It thankfully doesn't. My concern had been that this concert would be all self-serious, & that the band would execute wan imitations of those rich & complex recordings.

But No. First of all, Bradford was jovial & warm from the start. I was completely thrown off as he cracked jokes, flirted brazenly, recruited an audience member to play tambourine, & cetera. So by the time he started playing acoustic guitar & a fucking harmonica, well, I had already been so utterly disarmed & seduced that I was ready to follow wherever he & Atlas Sound were planning to go. (To be fair, he did allay fears by promising to play "some really weird shit" later in the set.)

This was a thrilling show because, while everybody knew to expect "experimental" or Experimental or whatever, this band played nothing that fit easily into any such pigeonhole. Instead, we got ~80 minutes of veering madly from one modus to another, never settling anywhere comfortably, & all of it was just damn fun! Mr. Cox has a lot of electronics on the floor, including some fancy-ass sampling machines. So, e.g., the acoustic guitar could morph into a hammer dulcimer on crystal meth, the harmonica could transmogrify via god's own echo-box. Or, just as often, not. Because playing it clean & straight is just one more color in this artist's very big wheel. & just to not leave the stone unturned: Bradford Cox is a fucking bad-ass electric guitar player exclamation point.

One favorite moment among several: tonight's version of "Quarantined." Stripped of its popping reverb & (deliberately, ironically) cheesy sequencer, the song was suddenly driven by Bradford's surprisingly passionate & ultimately poignant vocal performance. A complete reinvention of a song I have well-known & well-loved. Outstanding.

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