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Coachella 2011: Cut Copy and Crystal Castles take disco to the fringes

April 16, 2011 |  1:23 pm


Cut Copy's single "Lights and Music" is one of the simplest mission statements from a band ever put to wax. Here's its chorus, sung atop a dirtied Moog bass and little electropop blips in the Mojave tent on Friday night: "Lights and music are on my mind / Be my baby one more time."

We appreciate such forthrightness in our jams. But the Australian band's neon-giddy nighttime set in the Mojave provided a handy contrast to one taking an opposite tack across the field -- the Toronto duo Crystal Castles, who shround their dance beats in 4AD goth ambience and singer Alice Glass' feral shrieks and narcotized whimpers. On their self-titled first album they still had the trappings of a noise act, but on their also self-titled followup last year, they turned to straightforward songwriting and sleeker productions. Turns out both Cut Copy and Crystal Castles do better when they give up pretenses and put their considerable skills to the mission of moving bodies.

Photos: Faces of Coachella 2011

Cut Copy has become a cleanup hitter in festivals for their unapologetic anthems that still come bristling with intriguing productions. 2008's "In Ghost Colours" put a thumb on the scale for hands-up singalongs, while 2011's "Zonoscope" tilts a bit in the other direction -- lots of drum breakdowns, six-minute-plus songs and a kind of desert spaciness that should be a natural fit here. Cuts like the great kickoff single "Need You Now" settled in for a long haul of head-bopping, and frontman Dan Whitford warned that "This one's your last chance for a slow dance." Most everyone obliged.

But their hits are hits for a reason, and the reason is this -- Cut Copy was raised on Fleetwood Mac and ELO as much as Giorgio Moroder, and they are unafraid of pure chorus fromage. Coupled with their expertly crescendoing arrangements and tongue-in-cheek humor ("Saturdays" kept its goofball dialtone sample, "Pharaohs & Pyramids" is an actual song about ancient Egypt), the energy rarely flagged and the set ended with the lights up and a few dozen-thousand people suddenly meeting the stranger they were grinding on and grinning.

Crystal Castles would probably want to take that nerdy pleasure and, as they did to themselves in a famous press photo, tie a plastic bag around its head and kill it. The band has roots in noise and thrash metal scenes, and while many of their sounds come from cheap synthpop, they deploy them in ways that feel gangrenous and scavenged. The sharp-boned Glass is one of those frontpeople who bearded-producer-dudes lie awake at night thinking about, but the duo has long nursed a need to be divisive for its own sake. 

Not so on their second album, and not so at their Outdoor stage set Friday. Yes, Glass crawled around the stage and crowd like Linda Blair with a dance beat, but now the band has a slew of great songs to go with the theatrics. "Celestica" is made of shimmery, minor-key rave synths and moaning ambience, and Glass reeled off a pristine soprano so evocative one wonders why she ever wanted to hide it.

Images from the 2011 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival

"Baptism" worked a similar vein, only with a more defined lead lines and a faster-brewing sense of dread. By the time they got to their early album calling card, a remix/cover of the L.A. band HEALTH's great single "Crimewave," they had successfully detonated everything one thought about Crystal Castles to reveal something new -- a band not just at the fringes, but at the center of electronica songwriting's possibilities.


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-- August Brown