After five years in the Coachella trenches, we thought we had the thing wired, but this year the fest proved to be an entirely different beast — and, yes, it bit us in the ass. There were more off-site parties to attend (we didn’t make ’em all), longer lines for everything (the VIP entrance was such a clusterfuck, we were nearly suffocated trying to get in) and of course some decidedly more mainstream music offerings (Madonna and Kanye West) with the crowds to match. Filtermag’s annual pre-Coachella bash on Friday, at the same lakeside spot as last year, brought out the usual ’80s-garbed suspects and a shitload of sponsors trying to hip up their products with retro kiddie games (Spin Art and Shrinky Dinks), while across town the Spin mag party, according to those who went, offered “tacky stripper-looking go-go dancers at a sports bar.” So not Coachella. Most of the bands we wanted to see started at sunset, which offered the perfect excuse for a li’l party action on Saturday, first at the Anthem/Amp’d Mobile bash at Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs estate, where tatted and messy-tressed peeps did the splish-splash in the piano-shaped pool, while Ima Robot played a groovy acoustic set inside and singer Alex Ebert showed off his new fave look: MC Hammer pants. Over at the Motorola/DKNY soiree it was a much swankier, celeb-friendly scene, with Nikki Hilton and Entourage beau Kevin Connelly, Katie Holmes’ Creek-era ex, Joshua Jackson, and Nicole Richie enjoying gifting suites and more of a serene pool vibe, not to mention much better grub. Made it to the polo field just in time to catch black-clad femmes Ladytron turn in a potent, if slightly rigid, performance in the Mojave tent. While Franz Ferdinand and Depeche Mode were highlights, Depeche’s megascreen visuals proved to be distracting, and, really, who needs to see a giant close-up of Martin Gore’s facial moles? She Wants Revenge probably had the best slot of the night, just after DM’s set, and they milked it, opening with waify girls standing on stage in bride attire, and a Prince-like prance-and-dance performance (it was the most animated we’ve seen them). On Sunday, we enjoyed sizzling sets from Gnarls Barkley, Editors, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but the big questions were: Would Matisyahu sweat it up in his traditional Hasidic attire, and would it even be possible to see any of Madonna’s Sahara-tent performance? The melodious tribesman donned a white shirt and yarmulke (ironic, he was playing to a half-naked crowd when most Orthodox Jews don’t even believe in mixed-sex social events). As for Madge: The really daring fans climbed on top of nearby port-o-potties for the best view, and they teetered so much we feared a river of poop might leave us all living in a material wasteland. We squeezed in side-stage with Lizzie Jagger, Sean Lennon, and Trent Reznor, though even the NIN god (last year’s headliner) had to wait in a congested line with us at one point. It was the one time we didn’t mind waiting. Till next year . . .