The Streets, Bloc Party and Ghostface will rock out Union Park June 24-25

Last year, the Pitchfork Media Web site held a coming-out party of sorts, curating the inaugural Intonation Festival at Chicago’s Union Park. It was a chance for Pitchfork to showcase some of its most-praised bands. So successful was it that Pitchfork broke away to form its own, self-titled festival. This time around it is programmed by the hipster bible Vice Magazine and its label Vice Records.

As such, many of the performers are on Vice’s roster. Notable among these are the headliners of the two-day event – the rock band Bloc Party and the London rapper The Streets. Both are intensely popular in their native Britain but have failed to find success among the recent British invasion.

In Bloc Party’s case, this ignorance even stretches to England. Products of New Music Express’s hype machine, their debut Silent Alarm was prefaced with incredible expectations, which surprisingly, it lived up to. It is not an album that draws attention to itself, (as the similarly hyped debuts Oasis or even Arctic Monkeys have) and operates strictly in miniature. Lead singer Kele Okereke’s voice is one of the most tuneful and nuanced in indie rock, but he never allows it to dominate. He hides it behind the layers of terse guitars and staccato drumbeats, an instrument rather than a messenger of punk bloviation, which the British press would certainly have appreciated more.

Their songs are firmly within the post-punk mold. Naturally, much is ebbed from Gang of Four, particularly the taut instrumentation and vague but strong leftist politics. Their songs strive for beauty, though it’s a strange and almost unwelcome trait in their genre. Most of the time it works, and some of their most poignant songs are almost ballads, a word almost antithetical to the ethos of their musical ancestry.

Nevertheless, their failure here is still hard to describe, something that might be gauged by their performance, which on the whole can be sub par. For The Streets it is easier to pinpoint. The nom de plume for the white Mike Skinner, The Streets is definitively English, and he never lets that fact escape his music. He infects his rhymes with a cockney patois and influence decidedly different from any heard in American rap.

His first two albums were treatises on life in the outskirts of London, masterpieces of the UK Garage movement and its Game Boy-style beats. His third, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, released earlier this year, reverses that trend. Skinner is certainly still up for lamenting his lot in life, but the locale has shifted from the Council to the Country Estate. An album that contains various complaints on being rich and famous certainly sets the artist up for failure. (One of its most sincere lines is “Right, see the thing that’s got it all fucked up now is camera-phones/ How the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in front of complete strangers/ When I know they’ve all got cameras?”)

But, Skinner is still a talented and witty rapper, so it comes off quite easily. It will be interesting, though, to see if it translates well to the stage, where rap, especially something as fragile as this, has notoriously failed in the past.

Most of the other artists fit the indie rock mold of angularity and asymmetrical haircuts. An exception is the rapper Ghostface (formerly of the Wu-Tang Clan,) whose album Fishscale was one of the best of any genre released so far this year. His tales of murderous cocaine dealers do not seem to fit in well with the moderate whining of many of the other bands, but his performance should test the limits of the audience.

One of the chief issues with Intonation last year was its limits, its narrow-mindedness in only selecting bands that fit Pitchfork’s mold. If Ghostface succeeds this year, it will prove the durability of the festival (hipster fickleness is legendary) and also that of a city just trying to get itself accommodated to the New York-centered world of indie rock music.

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