Something strange happened to this critic's ears on the journey home from this weekend's Arthur Nights concerts at the Palace Theatre downtown: they pricked up. Every song flowing out of the car radio sounded fresh and full of potential. Forty acts sampled over three long evenings should have produced exhaustion, but instead the pageant was restorative, thanks to music that kept raising questions about what it means to make music at all.
This most ambitious public event so far from the Los Angeles-based countercultural rag Arthur showcased artists whose work is au courant enough to give rise to many irritating catchphrases -- drone-rock, orch-pop, psych-folk.
Single-minded concertgoers might have found their specialty and clung to it. For fans of punky women rockers there were the Heartless Bastards, Be Your Own Pet, Effie Briest. Mystic song-spinners included Josephine Foster and Mia Doi Todd. There were knowing elders (Michael Hurley, Ruthann Friedman, the Watts Prophets), and brain-melting noise generators (Charalambides, Om). Hip-hop was the great absence felt; otherwise, the field was fertile.
This eclecticism allowed for unforeseen connections. What did Kyp Malone, the singer with the semi-ambient art-rock group TV on the Radio -- who delivered a sweetly improvisational solo set Sunday, proving his talent beyond the sonic manipulations of his band -- have in common with Jemina Pearl, the teenage screamer with the endearing punk revivalist quartet Be Your Own Pet? What might Marshall Allen, the 82-year-old custodian of jazz saint Sun Ra's Arkestra, which closed out Saturday with a bang, say to Becky Stark, the dubiously wide-eyed chanteuse who performed with the Living Sisters upstairs at the same moment? The answer has to do with challenging frameworks, from pop songwriting to artistic identity itself.
On Friday, the duo Charalambides exemplified the Arthur Nights style of inquiry. Strumming instruments forcefully to produce resonating echoes, once-married duo Tom and Christina Carter raised a wall of intoxicating sound scaled, like ivy, by Ms. Carter's almost ambient vocals. This beauty held dissonance in its hand, revealing the echoes within folk songs and the softer turns within minimalist noise-rock.
The Living Sisters, featuring Eleni Mandell and Inara George along with Stark, produced a more comfortable sound, crooning ballads that would suit a Martin Scorsese soundtrack. But the group's slyly satirical performance was far more David Lynch. Dressed in matching sequined disco dresses, having fun with synchronized dance moves, the Living Sisters seemed like a joke -- until they broke into those lovely songs, languid with harmonies, and blurred the line between making fun of the past and longing for it.
The Fiery Furnaces, led by the siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, smudged different lines by playing most of the new album "Bitter Tea," as one long song. Propelled by the Talking Heads-like rhythms of percussionists Bob D'Amico and Michael Goodman, and guitarist Jason Loewenstein, with Eleanor intoning her brother's lyrics like a Shakespearean dame and Matthew raising the dust of his prog and pop influences on his keyboard, the Fiery Furnaces seemed more like a "new music" ensemble than an "indie-rock" band. It's the point of the Arthur scene to put such labels in quotes, as free-thinking musicians move determinedly between them.
The four-day festival did have some problems. The lovely, decaying Palace proved dubious for amplified music; as happens in many old theaters, a lot got lost in the rafters. Upstairs, quieter acts were challenged by chattering drinkers in the back. Some artists, including the dynamic veteran spoken-word ensemble the Watts Prophets, boldly overcame the technical difficulties. Others, such as the folk revivalist Josephine Foster, did not. "The harp and I are not making love tonight," Foster murmured before giving up on that instrument during her disjointed set. It can be hard to get intimate with your own talent in a large, echoing room.
Despite these problems, Arthur Nights showed that the pop underground is still digging up and mulching old assumptions. The noisily brilliant rock band Comets on Fire made the perfect final statement. Its guitar turmoil, maddened by heavy drums and the sound loops produced by Noel von Harmonson's vintage Echo-Electronics device, swept the crowd into a time-and-space tunnel where California psychedelia met English heavy metal, New York No Wave and Seattle grunge.
After such a trip, whose ears wouldn't pop?