BY THOMAS CONNER
Saturday lunch hour and the north field of Lollapalooza is lurching and leaning into the straightforward rock of the Soft Pack. This San Diego quartet effects nonchalance -- "Here's a new song. Whatever." -- but plays like they mean it, filling the park, already packed with reddening bodies, with a grinding, fat-bottomed sound. They're the Fall, no, now they're the Hives. Matt Lamkin is as exciting singing lazy "all right's" and "oh yeah's" as he is roaring with conviction that you should "Answer for Yourself." Basic and emboldening, the way a Saturday morning should be.
In the park's Petrillo Band Shell, next came the Wild Beasts. Such nice blokes, these British boys. Not beastly at all, thanking us kindly for our attention and wishing us a wonderful day. And the music, all chiming guitars and soaring vocals. Just beautiful.
Until you start hearing what they're singing about. There are tales of hoodlums running wild in the streets, "scaring the oldies into their dressing gowns." There are serious threats against "any rival who goes for our girls." The title track of the British band's sophomore CD, "Two Dancers," recounts almost "Clockwork Orange"-like violence: "They dragged me by the ankles through the street / They passed me round them like a piece of meat." The disc's opening track, all humming synthesizers and beautiful bass lines and wood-block rhythms, finds singer Hayden Thorpe, sounding like a demented Jimmy Somerville, howling, "This is a booty call ... my boot, my boot, my boot up your ----hole." Alas, there was no one posted to the sign language station for this show; demonstrating those lyrics would've been added entertainment.
But the Mercury Prize-nominated Wild Beasts are a surprisingly great festival band, their cinematic songs and layered effects luring half-interested fans to the sun-baked pavement in front of the band shell. The sun is warm today but not brutal, and occasional relief from clouds add to the dreamlike feeling, especially with the right music. Thorpe sings mostly in an airy falsetto, a rare treat in modern rock, and it's more than a gimmick. It's difficult to imagine this music wrapping around another kind of voice, not with that light, vibrating timbre to the bass, not with that ringing Johnny Marr-ish guitar. Yes, there's the Smiths reference. Listening to the Wild Beasts, it's not unrealistic to trace the family tree of their leering, melodic style back through Gene (the Smiths of the '90s) to the debut of Morrissey, another daring high-scale singer. Bassist Tom Fleming takes occasional lead singing duties, too, alternating between a low bellow and his variation on the upper register as he did on "All the King's Men," from "Two Dancers." Earlier material had more spunk, a livelier step ("Brave Bulging," "The Devil's Crayon"), but the show came to a big, satisfying finish with the new "Hooting and Hollering."
Some bands, though, struggle to present themselves well in the heat of the afternoon sun. Canada's Stars tried to puff up their delicate sound, making themselves seem larger -- good advice if encountering a bear in the woods, but as successful if encountering thousands of expectant fans in an urban park. This is a band that crafts intelligent mini-suites about romantic intrigue, led by two singers (Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan) with thin, soft voices. With the tracks carefully separated on CD, it's moving and magical. Live, it's sometimes a challenge, moreso outside of a dark club or theater. The band started slowly on Saturday, moving in slo-mo for some kind of effect and showering the crowd with white roses and the mylar debris of several hand-held confetti cannons. But that couldn't quite fill the void. Millan was sometimes hard to hear, intoning almost at a whisper (on "One More Night"), and Campbell forced his voice a little too hard in an apparent effort to be heard, though often he wasn't, either. When they joined together for "We Don't Want Your Body" -- a new song that one of my companions said sounds alarmingly like a Debbie Gibson comeback effort -- they at least began to pick up steam, charging to the end of the hourlong set with ripping takes on "I Died So I Could Haunt You," "Take Me to the Riot" and the closer, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead."