Music Review: The Julie Ruin, Body/Head and Majical Cloudz Play Northside

June 16th, 2013

Chad Batka for The New York Times

Northside Festival Kathleen Hanna of the Julie Ruin at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn on Thursday night.

The life of a song doesn’t necessarily end at the conclusion of its recording, or of a live performance of it. Songs have intended ears, targets in their cross hairs. Sometimes, to understand a song, to really hear it, it helps to know where and how it’s meant to land.

That was the case throughout most of an intriguing Thursday night lineup — presented by Pitchfork as part of the Northside Festival — at Saint Vitus, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Musically, the main acts — The Julie Ruin, Body/Head, Majical Cloudz — had little in common, but each in its own way was offering a conversation starter, with music that relied upon receiving as much as giving.

In this, Devon Welsh of Majical Cloudz is intensely literal. Head shaved to near bald, white T-shirt tucked into jeans, Mr. Welsh looks like a bullet. His songs match: they’re barely stylized, heavy on the first person, veering from incantation to crooning. But despite the freakish directness of the music on the recent Majical Cloudz album, “Impersonator” (Matador), there remained something hollow about it, like an unfilled-out questionnaire.

Turns out you have to see Mr. Welsh. Onstage he is not quite possessed but certainly driven. Sometimes he strangled the microphone with two hands. Sometimes he swung it in a pounding motion down to the ground. When he spoke between songs, he was jittery and distracting, but each song was a little reverie. The music, by Matthew Otto, was little more than cushiony synthesizer chords with an occasional beat for emphasis — effectively a blank canvas for Mr. Welsh to scrawl onto.

That was the opposite of what was happening with the Julie Ruin, the new band of Kathleen Hanna, originator of riot grrrl with her early 1990s band Bikini Kill and a reliable musical and political agitator in the years since. It takes its name from an excellent solo album Ms. Hanna released in the late ’90s, but veers widely away from that record’s sound, which was urgent, almost nervous, and pared down.

Ms. Hanna is always a vibrant vocalist, but that was obscured during this show — only the band’s second, and its first in about three years.

In all her iterations, Ms. Hanna has been an artist for whom sloppiness was both a strategy and a virtue, but the new material played here, from a coming album, largely undid the winningness of that aesthetic concept. The drummer, Carmine Covelli, matched Ms. Hanna’s joy and zeal, but often the rest of the band appeared to be working against her, hopelessly cluttering her message.

Better, but still distracting, were meatier arrangements of “Radical or Pro-Parental” and “Apt. #5,” great screeds from the original Julie Ruin album and songs that felt more pungent, even with the heavier treatments that distracted from their essential mettle. The crowd, full of Hanna faithfuls, responded enthusiastically, but often it felt as if they were clapping for a memory.

Kim Gordon, half of the band Body/Head, arrived trailed by history as well, though she was seeking to unburden herself of it. She and her husband, Thurston Moore, were the nucleus of Sonic Youth, one of the most influential bands of an era when there was still an alternative scene to cross over from.

She and Mr. Moore are divorcing, upending one of indie rock’s reliable musical and romantic institutions. Body/Head, a noise-drone duo with Bill Nace, is her main band now.

At this show, the tone was unexpectedly soothing. Ms. Gordon’s spectral koan vocals offered few clues; really it was her guitar (and Mr. Nace’s) that took a stand, a sort of call-and-response of healing, oceanic feedback.

In places, she and Mr. Nace would face each other and seesaw back and forth, trading slashes on their guitars, but even here, the sound never registered as confrontational. Maybe who she was talking to was herself.

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