Titwrench 2011 travelogue: Sin Desires Marie, Christina the Hun, Coathangers and much more

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Friday, July 29 - Glob

Every year it seems as though someone involved with Titwrench (likely Piper Rose) comes up with some kind of ritual to start off the festivities. This year, a woman calling herself Bast (you know, from Egyptian mythology, which is fitting) set things in motion with a hybrid of belly dancing and -- as hinted at by Piper later -- Tantric practice. Her gymnastic moves and graceful gestures, coupled with her full Dervish-esque costume and swirl of electro-Middle Eastern music, definitely seemed to create a sacred space.

Kirtan Choir is made up of two members of CJ Boyd's Sexxxtet, including Boyd himself on both upright and electric bass and the other member playing cello. With volume pedals, some delay and masterful looping technique, the duo created layers of string sound that flowed in a steady stream of lower register tones while the cello ascended over the top before cycling back down into that stream.

At one point, Boyd used his bow on a glockenspiel to create rivulets of drone. Later on in the set, the quiet intensity of the music was reminiscent of the For Carnation. The whole set was improvised, never to be played again, but that just made it all the more obvious that this configuration of the project was the perfect union of superb technique, experimentation and imagination in taking a minimal set-up and building out of it expansive compositions.

The members of the next band looked like they had stepped off the set of a horror movie playing post-apocalyptic zombie witches with fake blood and tattered clothing. The mixture of dub-bass and tribal percussion, with a singer who gestured wildly and sang with a degree of theatricality to match, made Dangerous Nonsense seem like they had stepped out of some kind of time warp where the Slits and Gang of Four were more influential bands on modern punk than the Ramones.

The seething emotions behind the performance, along with the rhythm-driven music, recalled Penis Envy-era Crass or Bush Tetras -- partly because the vocals were both melodic and naturally distorted. Dangerous Nonsense is often referred to as a "feminist" punk band. Punk? Yes, in the fervor of the performance and the disregard for convention, but otherwise it was whatever comes next that is not post-punk. Lyrically, however, this was borne out, but clearly these three women write with a concern for issues that go beyond their immediate experience, which is a rarity.

Tine's membership stretches across at least two states, and it seemed like the band wasn't well-rehearsed, per se, but that each of the four had somehow brought together something unique because of that. At first, it seemed like we were in for some kind of awkward bluesy, punk funk with scrappy guitar work. But the sound quickly evolved into the sort of music that wouldn't be out of place on the Disco Not Disco compilations of No Wave dance music.

Toward the end of the set, the band put its stamp on a cover of "Kick in the Eye" by Bauhaus, and it was at that point that things completely jelled and Tine became impressive for weaving together that adventurous post-punk of the early '80s with something more modern and noisy.

It had to happen eventually and "reunion summer" came to an end with the final Sin Desires Marie show. The set was short, with the band opening with the always-electrifying "One Too Many Reasons," but it's better to have seen these seven songs one more time than not at all.

Apparently Yoon Park's son, Oscar, wished her a good show for this night, a blessing he did not give for the UMS performance -- though that show didn't lack for a visceral immediacy, either. Rousseau and Park faced each other here and there during the set and occasionally, in the tried-and-true tradition of musicians, smiled with bemusement when one or the other made some kind of mistake -- or was on the verge of doing so, which the audience would never know, because mistakes in performance are inherently funny to the people playing and often imperceptible to the people watching. Mistakes are endearing and part of the human experience.

Whereas some musicians throw tantrums on stage, those with a little more grace and a sense of proportion and respect for the audience -- from having been in the audience and not forgetting it -- don't bother with such histrionics. Instead, Sin Desires Marie reminded us one last time why its headlong rhythms, a sense of emotional conviction and passionate delivery of the music always mattered. The band finished with the harrowing "Slowly," and probably more than a few people wished they'd been able to play it all again right then. As usual, Sin Desires Marie set the bar very high.

The swelling swirls of distorted harmonic sound shot through with tastefully bombastic percussion filled the beginning of Bury My Bones' set. A looped melodic line overlaid with a cutting, distorted lead was guitarist Diana Sperstad's method throughout, but with each song being so sonically different, it never seemed gimmicky.

She had two amps, so that the loop could be sent through one while the live part went through the other -- or so it seemed -- so that neither would have to fight for head room. Sperstad's fiery, explosive leads on the fourth song with her expert use of controlled feedback made what sounded like a South Youth-esque lead seem even heavier.

Saturday, July 30 - Mercury Cafe

Upstairs at the Mercury, things got started again with Bast, who cast forth rose petals, as is her usual introduction\ -- and this time, she had a different costume entirely but with a similar stylistic theme. The music was a kind of Middle Eastern new age music with some rumbling electronic bass, resulting in something like a mystical downtempo piece. Bast's fluid motions cutting a snake-like figure with her upper and lower body were just part of the display of her prowess with such a physical art form -- a marvel of flexibility and grace.

Because of a cancellation due to a breakdown, Scarlett Cook played in the place of Bicycle Voice. Cook, from Australia, sat at the Mercury's piano and played delicate yet emotionally intense music akin to Little Earthquakes-era Tori Amos. It sounded like Cook had some kind of classical training, because she smoothly played a chord structure on two ends of the piano while singing a melody over both, which looks easy, but isn't.

Somewhere in the middle, a terrible squeal on the mike stopped the show, but Cook handle it with grace and pragmatism by disconnecting the mike and politely asking for help up on stage. It happened again later, but Cook's poise really smoothed over the interruptions admirably.

Also from Australia, Laral looped grainy, echoing rushes of air with vocals treated in a way as to be no longer recognizable as such. Shortly into the mix, Laral introduced some guitar and delay feedback that created a rising and falling tone that cycled until all but leveling out in a sound that wouldn't be out of place in the weirder sections of Holy Mountain.

At one point, the soundscape was further stretched and modified so as to be reminiscent of Halber Mensch-era Neubauten when the music evolved into sounding metallic (not to be confused with metal) and psychedelic with fuzzy edges, making for something that sounded like spooky spaghetti western music crossed with the soundtrack work Pink Floyd did for More or Obscured By Clouds.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the experimental music underground in Albuquerque, New Mexico, knows about Marisa Demarco. As Bigawatt, a solo project, she looped a floor tom, cymbals and other items to create unique rhythms and sonic textures. For her first song, her voice was pitch-shifted to the point where she sounded truly demented. At times, it was a bit like Tune-Yards, but based more on noise with hints of jazz structures.

Soulful and versatile, Demarco's creative use of voice and her ability to just make unconventional sounds work in a musical context was remarkable. When Demarco used the accordion for a few of the last songs of the set, it was like she had re-contextualized the use of the instrument so that it droned like it might in Middle Eastern music, but it also created a dense, dynamic backdrop for her crooning that really drew you in to whatever world of the moment it is that Demarco seems to go to when she performs.

Marlo Eggplant has been on the forefront of noise music for at least the last ten years, and at her second appearance at the Titwrench festival, she mixed in the sound of contact between a bell and her autoharp, with sounds of air escaping a compressed space to create a curiously visceral, ambient sound. She accompanied this with a percussive noise that sounded as though she had sampled giant basketballs hitting a giant court in the middle distance. Her whole set conjured images of what it would be like to be a gnat trapped in a machinist's workshop -- partly terrifying, partly confusing, but never boring.

Brittany Gould, performing as Married in Berdichev, started out with something that sounded new. By altering the delay time on her pedal, she created a unique shimmer in sound that was a bit like pushing vinyl backwards on the turntable -- which is nothing too strange for manipulating delay sounds. But Gould was able to blend this into a hypnotic soundscape very different from her earlier material. Yes, the sense of being surrounded by water was still there, but the interference pattern created by layers of sound gently collide and intersect gave a sense of islands in the distance.

Later in the song, some interesting electronic percussion was introduced that sounded like the early drum machines used by Suicide. When Gould's vocals came in more distinctly, it was like old radio signals of a long lost '50s pop song echoing from an unseen source -- like the magnetic-tape equivalent of a palimpsest. The second song shone with an uncomfortable brightness as it swelled rapidly outward. Gould's music has consistently required an overlap of sensory descriptors to convey in mere words the depth and beauty of what she creates on stage -- and with this set, even more so.

Red Thread, a band that includes Daralee Fallin, who used to perform solo as Via, was up next. Although this was the band's first show, there wasn't as much of the first show awkwardness that you'd expect. The trio performed a dusky pop that was intense yet minimal. The opening song was a great example of how you can use a technique like singing in the round in interesting and creative ways, if you're willing to go outside the format a little. One song toward the end of the set sounded uncannily like "I Wanna Be Your Dog," partly because of the insistent, but moodily executed, keyboard part in the background.

It takes guts to get up on stage alone, and Fresh Flesh did it with some attitude using samples recorded to cassette for the music -- usually a minimal drum sample of some kind. Her singing was hip-hop-esque and profane, but playful. On songs with titles like "Timeship Space Lane," it was obvious that this woman doesn't take herself too seriously. One song sounded like a lo-fi MC 900 Ft. Jesus doing "Adventures in Failure," with another sound akin to something on the Julie Ruin record. The most impressive moment by far, of almost anyone at the festival, came when Fresh Flesh did a song called "Reverse Rapture" and then "Reverse Rapture Reversed," in which she pronounced the words backwards. She did it so well, it was both inspiring and unsettling in the best way.

Christina the Hun started her time on stage by reading an Indian poem from a few hundred years ago and then went into her always utterly unique, forceful and yet charming set. With just a drum set and a versatile voice, Christina is able to convey in her emotionally charged quaver and caterwaul a sense of her own mythology in words. Nothing about her drum work was simple, but she made it seem so, often closing her eyes with Zen-like concentration. With short but sharp and sweet songs, the Hun completely captivated the audience.

The second night of Titwrench came to an unexpected close with Tulip Wars. The singer tested out the mike before the set with some jazz standards. But once the band got going, its scintillating guitar work, expressive rhythms and strong vocals made you forget that a fairly straight-ahead rock band was playing, because the quality of the performance and the songs were compelling even after a long night of music. The singer's vocal style was reminiscent of Kristen Hirsch, and the music itself had hints of the more upbeat end of Luna or the Innocence Mission with a little more force behind it.

Sunday, July 31 - Mercury Cafe

Naturally everything began with another example of Bast's "fusion temple dance," but this time, Bast's graceful and elegant performance flowed into Piper Rose's set as Mistress of Magic, with something a little different for the semi-adventurous souls willing to go along: Piper had recruited four "goddesses" to join Bast in giving those willing to sit in a half circle in front of the stage puja, and she demonstrated this for us, so we knew what we were in for, which was a fragrance to purify the air, some kind of balm spread around edges of our faces and a special blessing from Bast at the end.

For her part, Rose created an intense yet heavenly drone she had created with a harmonium and looped along with other sounds that she augmented with her own powerful, melodious voice in uplifting cadences. By the end of it all, it felt like something magical really did happen.

Downstairs at the main stage, Britt Rodemich's latest project, Shady Elders, with Chris Durant on drums, was going. The breezy, jangly music was a bit different from what you might expect from Rodemich. Her vocals were tinged with reverb and inexplicably edgy. Rodemich's forelock covering one of her eyes while the other looked around and stared off penetratingly gave her a bit of a mysterious appearance that added to the effectiveness of her performance in a way. It was probably not intentional, but there was a bit of a vibe of an early '80s, L.A. new wave guitar band with singers who combined soul and R&B with music very far removed from that scene -- lounge-y, even.

The time between sets was staggered a little oddly, and the upstairs wasn't getting going, so I got back in to the main stage downstairs in time to catch a bit of Mariposa's set. Her small acoustic guitar sounded like a mandolin, and it was played in the style of the more recent folk music you see around. But her voice compared favorably to that of Kate Ersing from Pollination Population and Rachael Pollard. Her delicate, impressionistic finger picking and finger tapping were impressive, not just for their intricacy, but also their tastefulness.

Emma Crane, who played last year in Elephant Paintings, and who is also a member of genius performance art troupe Milch De La Máquina, played as Javelina and delivered what could be described as "ambient folk" -- but let's just leave the "folk" out of it except as a frame of reference to give an idea of the sound. With what sounded like a wind machine and a sampler that created a backdrop of animal sounds and crickets, Crane used her ethereal vocals and minimal guitar work to enact songs made for a tree house open to the sky lit only by starlight. The kind of place that attracts beautiful, calming dreams.

Back on the second floor, the Dancehall Stage, Joy Von Spain from Seattle came as a bit of surprise; her powerful, operatic vocals had the ability to get under your skin. As she sat at the piano, images of Diamanda Galas came to mind. During her set, Joy did a batch of covers, including "Bloodletting" by Concrete Blonde, where she changed up the lyrics a little to hilarious effect (switch "asshole" with "vampire" and you get the idea).

She also performed a chilling version of "Fool" by Swans, a Jean-Paul Garnier song, and she nearly turned Gitane Demone's "Incendiary Lover" into a soaring dirge before closing with a powerful version of "Receive" by Neurosis and Jarboe. Who does covers like these, much less with a genuinely operatic flourish? Joy Von Spain is one of the few people who could pull it off with any credibility and conviction.

After Joy Von Spain painted the room in dark sonic colors, I made my way back to the main floor to catch Now, Forever from Colorado Springs, which came as a bit of a jolt and a pleasant surprise. The sweeping melodies and passionate, theatrical delivery seemed like something you don't often see around here at the best of times. Musically it was like these people had created an intense, pagan new age music like Dead Can Dance or a more jaunty Sky Cries Mary. Organic elements mixed in evenly with the electronic and striking, beautifully melodramatic vocals to make for a memorable experience seeing this band in a place where the colors always seem to make it look otherworldly.

After a bit of a break, pretty much everyone gathered upstairs for Milch De La Máquina. For this show, the group build what looked like a blue and white lace tepee of some kind with long, orange sashes at intervals hanging down from the top. A system of ropes and pulleys had been installed above it, and two large jugs of water with contact mikes attached sat away from the tepee, connected by wires to pedals and then to amps.

From inside, the women of Milch chanted about doubt and lifted the contraption up a little, and a woman's head and torso emerged from a hole in the top, so that she looked like a giant woman in a dress. At that point, some of the performers emerged from beneath and made sounds with the jugs while singing, but two of them pulled the sashes from underneath the "tall" woman's stilts so that she didn't trip over them -- showing a real sense of care and teamwork to make this an unforgettable performance-art experience.

Later on, the women on the ground took a sash and tied it around her mid-section and danced in a circle connected with the "tall" woman while hitting chimes attached at various points to the bottom edge of the giant "dress," singing a song that increased in intensity until they were running around, and ultimately the woman on the stilts shed the giant dress and all the performers fell down in a star-shape. Needless to say, Milch is more than just a band -- even though its music was interesting on its own with elements of noise and traditional music taken out and given an avant-garde edge.

The Mariner Variations started out in the dancehall as a single woman with an accordion singing sea shanties with no shortage of humorous couplets. At one point, she asked a "random" person in the audience to help her build a boat. Which they both tried out of this brown paper and tape, both speaking in hilariously awful cockney accents. When they finished the boat, the woman got in and "rowed" it a bit and continued with her absurdist ballads.

On the main floor stage, Last Eyes laid out avant-garde guitar songs, including one that sounded like a fuzz-laced version of "Castle in the Clouds" by Gong. The use of a splintery reverse delay made for some mind-bending moments as she introduced dreamy vocals over gritty textures made into atmospheric melodies. Often Val Franz sounded like Björk without the trills and other affectations. At the end of the set, she somehow made her guitar sound like an accordion with a touch of overdrive. Franz's guitar work has always been fascinating, but rarely more so than with her solo project Last Eyes.

In the Dancehall, meanwhile, Hatchet Wound, a duo from Austin, played the kind of danceable punk music that has recently fallen out of favor. But there was something so friendly and inviting about the band that you couldn't help but be caught up in their energy. At times the outfit sounded minimal like Young Marble Giants, and others, especially with the trebly bass, it was more like Delta 5.

The band performed a frenetic cover of "Sex Without Stress" by Au Pairs, and afterward the group got volunteers from the audience to play tambourine and maracas while the rest of the crowd clapped along with a fairly complicated rhythm as the drummer got on the mike and sang in his Lee Renaldo-esque voice.

Ducking back downstairs for a moment, I caught a bit of Plastic Children's set. Those two people seemed to be playing some new kind of music that incorporated performance art poetry with experimental electronic music, and the MicroKorg sounded like it was slowing down and speeding up as the singer strutted about like a tribal jazz singer. Apparently, earlier in the set, at least according to Lance Stack of the Flat Response fame, the singer rolled around on the floor in front of the stage and sang to a mannequin head. If nothing else, this band was strikingly original, even in a day of music where things never seemed quite the same.

Following up Plastic Children, Robin Walker took the stage and performed as Cougar Pants without the presence of her bandmate, Jessica Hughes, playing the kick drum, hi-hat and ukulele. You can't help but be struck by Walker's spirit, which informed every song. She has a presence like some creature that wandered out of the land of Faerie as described by Lord Dunsany, like she's clued in to some secret wisdom about which she often giggles charmingly between songs.

When she finally picked up the keyboard to play, the synth line was resonant and strong in a way many of us hadn't seen out of her in a long time, if ever. A gifted performer and musician all around, Walker is known for being consistently fascinating in her performances, both with how good the music always happens to be and for her unpredictable antics.

Hearing the excellent garage rock band The Manxx from upstairs could have coaxed all of us to join in on the fun, but Annah Anti-Palindrome was so riveting that you didn't want to leave. She was the kind of performer who is so personally open and who puts so much of herself into the music that it can be off-putting to people uncomfortable with such a level of disclosure from others. But Annah made it seem completely acceptable.

You get the sense that there's probably little difference between her onstage and off stage personality. Even when she talked about her personal politics, although it might have alienated a person or two, there was something engaging about Annah that made you kind of roll with whatever she presented. Her music, meanwhile, made excellent use of loops, and her ability to beat box was respectable, lending the music an interesting percussive quality.

Her songs about her mom, who, apparently, died of a drug overdose, were so crushingly poignant, you felt where she had been with those feelings in a cathartic way. Sampling a blood pressure gauge to create percussive textures and a whisk through an egg with whiskey later on, Annah created unique sounds that can never be completely replicated.

During her set, she passed out notes to the audience and asked us to write down a message to a part of our bodies and most people did. With those, she did a kind of ambient section of a song first and then read through each note. Annah closed the set performing with her friend Rowan -- a cover of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," hitting a reverse on the delay at the end in a playful ending gesture.

With the main floor shows over, it remained for the final two acts to play. The Coathangers from Atlanta started off their set with one of their best songs, "Johnny" from their latest album, Larceny & Old Lace. The Coathangers records have always been good, but nothing could prepare you for the raw exuberance and sense of rock and roll danger these four women were capable of kicking up once they got going. Stephanie Luke's raging vocals were palpable and when combined with those of Julia Kugel, nearly hysteria-inducing.

Certainly much of the audience was induced into a frenzy of dancing. Candice Jones' keyboard work not only created interesting atmospheres in the context of music that could be called "punk" or "garage rock," but really is neither; still, it added to the sense of disorientation and a heightened emotional state. Meredith Franco's bass had perfect dub tones with the treble turned up slightly to give it some punch.

Even when the band switched instruments, no momentum was lost whatsoever, and despite the late hour, despite seeing so many other musical projects throughout the rest of the evening and the previous three days, it was impossible not to be affected and inspired by the Coathangers. Finishing with "Don't Touch My Shit" and the psychotic phone ringing sound set off by Jones, and Kugel going out into the audience without her guitar, the Coathangers went out on the highest note possible.

What could possibly follow up the Coathangers? Only something completely different and equally good? Indeed, Suspended from Albuquerque. Three women playing such bitingly aggressive and precise thrash/death that one woman in the audience seemed dumbstruck and remarked how she couldn't believe that there were women playing this kind of music. (She might look up Dark Castle, Arch Enemy and Kylesa sometime.)

Suspended's thrash did not seem like a throwback to some previous era of music. The performance was fierce, and the music, while in a certain style, didn't seem to be clearly influenced by another artist in any direct way -- not easy to do with this kind of music. But Suspended had its set cut short due to the time restrictions of the venue. Still, what a great way to end the festival -- with a defiant crunch of imaginatively technical metal.

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