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Hop on (Noise) Pop

Courtesy of Paige K. Parsons

For a city that plays host to two major music festivals, the end-of-summer romp, Outside Lands, and the autumn-welcoming revelry, Treasure Island, The Noise Pop Festival provides a certain change of pace. The longest running music festival in the Bay, Noise Pop isn’t exactly a musical respite, but it certainly is a step back. It’s a breather in frenetic times where organizers and festival-goers desire constant gratification and frenetically jam together and overlap artists over two or three days that leaves you mentally exhausted and sick of any auditory stimuli by the end of the weekend.

At its core, Noise Pop is simple: transform a city space into a communal area where the people can celebrate music, art and film over a week-long period. Give the people the choice on whether they want to see Dan Deacon or Alexei Murdoch. Let the masses out if they want to spend the night in the Mission or in Oakland. Leave them to figure out if they’d rather watch a José Gonzalez biopic or go to a Nick Zinner art exhibit.

Last Sunday, the festival celebrated the end of its 19th year of existence and concluded a memorable and definitely eclectic festival that featured everything from the stylized hip hop of Peanut Butter Wolf to the stripped-down acoustic performance of Death Cab For Cutie front man, Ben Gibbard. Whatever your choice, Noise Pop continued to exemplify a standard that places music and the people first, something festival promoters have forgotten in their quest for a quick buck.

Here are some of The Daily’s picks from the musical offerings of a memorable Noise Pop 2011:

Geographer @ The Independent 2/23

Wednesday night at The Independent was one to remember. With three of the four acts sporting connections to the city, the sold-out hump day show was a local affair capped off by the headlining brilliance of Geographer.

Yet, before the Bay Area three-piece picked up their instruments, an eclectic mix of openers warmed the stage. Funeral Party, hailing from East L.A., curiously mixed emo-throwback lyrics with traditional rock jams to entertain a sparse opening crowd. Female rapper and Stanford grad K. Flay got lots of love from the hometown crowd. Building her own beats from Decemberists and Gossip samples, the suburban rap queen was on top of her game, changing tempos, flipping the bird and dancing across stage as a true one-woman show. Butterfly Bones completed the trio of opening acts with a brand of disco-infused synthpop that made them feel like Chromeo-lite.

Geographer, however, owned the night. The hometown heroes sounded phenomenal and as an added bonus, turned out to be great guys with lead singer Michael Deni taking a break from the show to return a lost wallet to an audience member and offer himself as a potential future date.

Deni sounded fantastic, even while adding the synths, very light electric guitar or electronic effects. Shoeless drummer Brian Ostreicher certainly played his part, dramatically building up the beat in the large crescendos present in almost every song. Nathan Blaz, formerly of St. Vincent, rocked out on the cello and gave Deni’s legato vocals a perfect bass register to work with.

Geographer opened with arguably three of their best songs, “Verona,” “Paris” and “Can’t You Wait,” but with only eight released songs, there wasn’t too much choice. They played their entire “Animal Shapes” EP, to no one’s disappointment, plus a couple of new songs. The first newly composed piece carried on with their light indie pop, while the other was a much louder, drum-heavy piece which lent itself more to head banging than hip swinging. Geographer closed with “Night Winds,” before coming back for an encore performance of “Heaven Waits” to exhaust their performance arsenal and leave the crowd thoroughly happy. – Charlie Dunn

Aesop Rock & Kimya Dawson @ The Great American Music Hall 2/25

In scanning the bill in the build up to Noise Pop, few shows raised as many question marks as much as the promise of the on-stage collaboration between Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson. The thought of Aesop Rock, a.k.a. Ian Bavitz, backed by a folk guitar and the “Juno”-oozing cuteness of one half of the Moldy Peaches seemed so far off from the traditional turntables and urban snarl that most could only smile to hide their doubts. Yet that’s exactly what powered the show as the surrealism-fueled doubt was embraced by Bavitz and Dawson, who bathed in the sheer strangeness of it all.

In setting the tone for a night of novelty, Dawson opened the show with a solo set that caught some audience members off guard. A far cry from underground hip hop, the singer’s acoustic guitar barely conquered the crowd’s murmuring as she featured her characteristic songs jam-packed with autobiographical detail, lighthearted commentary and wit. From “Beer,” which she sang to celebrate 12 years sober, to the hilarious “Alphabutt,” Dawson was anything but expected given the headliner.

Aesop Rock took over soon after Dawson left the stage. The New York transplant who currently resides in the Bay awed the “hometown” and unleashed a flurry of the songs and swag that have endeared him to hip hop fans for the better part of two decades, drawing particularly from 2007 release “None Shall Pass” with songs like “Coffee.” Leaving gaps for the beat-building turntable skills of DJ Big Whiz, Aesop Rock also displayed a propensity for oddities, allowing friend Jeremy Fish, dressed in a pig suit, to play kazoo on “Pigs,” breaking open a dinosaur piñata filled on stage and initiating a giveaway of the featured stage art that caused a massive crowd crush.

Closing the night, Dawson rejoined Bavitz on stage to play a number of songs from their yet-to-be named collaborative project. Rapping at a slower tempo, Aesop Rock dropped his lyrics over warm acoustic rhythm guitar as Dawson provided backup vocals and choruses on a pair of pleasant and reminiscing tracks. Yet, after a show with so many twists and turns, the pair chose to cut the soft ending and closed in fashion to match the night’s outlandishness. Joined by friends on stage, they embarked on a fresh rap duet with a chorus of “Tits up, tits up.” Figure that one out. – Ryan Mac

Ben Gibbard @ The Great American Music Hall 2/27

Although Ben Gibbard‘s written and released music for nearly 15 years, his image has remained relatively unchanged. For most, the name evokes an image of a bespectacled and disillusioned indie antihero, a melancholic artist whose songs defined that liminal period between teenage years and young adulthood. But what happens when that icon grows older, finds new views and moves on?

On Sunday night, Gibbard closed out Noise Pop 2011 with a solo set that mixed traditional Death Cab with covers, guest appearances and new material, but ultimately revealed the singer’s newfound perspective — and it wasn’t just the opting for contacts instead of his trademark glasses. In the festival’s last show of 2011 at the Great American Music Hall, Gibbard was a changed individual, an older artist and a more grounded man, whose recent noteworthiness stems from appearances at baseball games and a marriage to Zooey Deschanel, not so much “Transatlanticism” or even 2008 release, “Narrow Stairs.”

The headliner took to the stage as a lonely figure. Without the rest of Death Cab, Gibbard was accompanied by his acoustic guitar and a grand piano, but cut a completely different character. Despite bags under his eyes, Gibbard was bright and cheerful. He took to his solo set with aplomb in a manner that didn’t exactly match the morose undercurrents of opening songs “Steadier Footing” and “Title Track.” These high spirits lasted throughout the set, making for an odd contrast with the singer’s song catalogue and reputation, but nonetheless a memorable show.

Gibbard started the show tactfully, selecting a collection of songs off older Death Cab releases while mixing in songs from projects with Jay Farrar and later, “Farmer Chords,” from a collaboration with Andrew Kenny of American Analog Set. Some songs sounded brilliant in the acoustic setting, notably “Cath” and “Such Great Heights,” while others faltered in the stripped-down nature of it all, including “Title And Registration.” Also debuted was the title track off Death Cab’s new album “Codes and Keys,” a song whose upbeat 50s piano harmonies may signal a new direction for the Pacific Northwest band.

Yet, if anything signaled the changes in Gibbard’s demeanor, it came from the set’s surprises. When guest Bob Mould was called to the stage to play a duet of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” Gibbard became a nervous fanboy, deferential to the Sugar front man while shedding the spotlight to his boyhood hero. Equally out-of-character, Gibbard professed his love for country before launching into a cover of Buck Owen’s “Love’s Gonna Live Here.” Compare that to his cover of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” a performance he has yet to live down to this day.

“To bands thinking about playing ironic covers, don’t,” he said. “I like that song, I really did, but my mood has changed about it.”

That mood change was evident on Sunday. Whatever it is — marriage, age, a change of scenery — Gibbard was different. Indeed, he is still the same brilliant artist, but behind that same wavy hair lies a change in perspective. With “Codes And Keys” set to be released in May, we’ll see where that new perspective takes him and Death Cab For Cutie. – Ryan Mac

Versions of these reviews were published last week on the music blog, treeswingers.