I began the second evening of SXSW by watching Peruvian quintet Resplandor perform at Esther’s Follies. What better way to soundtrack a sunset than with quintessential shoegaze? Resplandor’s music sounds a bit more like Slowdive than like My Bloody Valentine, but it feels nitpicky to acknowledge that distinction. Undergirded by a relentless rhythm section, the guitarists created a loud, instinct wash that obscured the breathy coed vocals. Resplandor did exactly what the audience expected them to do, and did it well. It’s also worth noting that the band’s female vocalist became my first crush of the festival.
After Resplandor’s set, I walked to the Beauty Bar to catch Danish dub duo CHLLNGR, arriving early enough to catch the last few songs of preceding band Grandchildren’s set. A friend of mine once aptly described the Philadelphian sextet as “Tortoise with vocals.” The band runs complex yet hummable songs through electro-acoustic treatments, and then layers nasal, reverberant vocal harmonies on top. They played behind a curtain, leaving the audience no choice but to focus solely on the music. Fortunately, the music more than held its own.
I’d already seen a lot of good stuff over the last day and a half, but CHLLNGR truly blew my mind. They manipulated their songs in real time with a full table of keyboards, effects pedals and sequencers. They crooned in perfect harmony and played saxophone and melodica solos at all the right moments. Their set contained original songs, classic covers and remixes of their contemporaries (their Flying Lotus interpolation was particularly nice); it felt like they had crammed the entire history of dub into a half-hour. When Panamanian reggae artist MC Zulu hopped on stage to do some toasting on their final song, I lost my mind. After such a brilliant set, CHLLNGR might as well have renamed itself CHMPN. Then again, have I ever seen a Danish band at SXSW that DIDN’T go incredibly hard?
I then ran to Headhunters to see legendary “No Wave” band the Notekillers. I’d been listening to their music for years, but I regretfully missed their last few SXSW showcases, and was determined not to let history repeat itself. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen men in their late 50s play so intensely. The drummer made his hi-hat beg for mercy; the bassist sounded downright flatulent; and the guitarist’s asymmetrical riffs were frequently interrupted by queasily dissonant note clusters. Their criminally short set was split between 30-year-old songs, all of which appear on their 1977-1981 compilation, and songs from their upcoming debut album We’re Here to Help. The new songs were just as fast and furious as the old ones.
I had some time to kill between the Notekillers’ set and the next act I planned to see, so I did a bit of wandering around. I eventually stumbled upon Dam-Funk performing at a club whose name I can’t even remember. This performance was more of a DJ set, during which he played vintage Commodores and Slave tracks, but he did step away from the turntables to do some dancing and singing. The crowd at this club, however, was stiffer than the one he performed for at the Beauty Bar the day before. I don’t understand how people can hear such pure uncut funk and NOT move something other than their heads.
Once Dam-Funk’s set ended, I walked to the Phoenix to get a good spot for English quartet the Chapman Family, arriving early enough to catch about half of preceding band Elevator Fight’s set. Elevator Fight is fronted by Lenny Kravitz’s daughter Zoe; for better and worse, this will be their biggest selling point, no matter how good they get. The band’s not bad: the musicians are top-notch (the guitarist’s tone is deliciously grimy), the songs are catchy, and Zoe’s stage presence ably compensates for her vocal limitations (and her fake British accent). Most of the dudes at the front of the audience formed a mild mosh pit, knocking the photographers to and fro; I wish I liked Elevator Fight’s music as much as they did.
Lee “Scratch” Perry
Music lovers, meet the leader of your new government.
Hipster racism involves making derogatory comments with a racial basis in an attempt to seem witty and above it all. Specifically, the idea is to sound ironic, as in “I’m allowed to say this because of course I’m not racist, so it’s funny.” It’s an aspect of a larger part of the hipster culture, which wants to seem jaded and urbane and oh-so-witty. Using language which is viewed as inflammatory or not appropriate is supposed to push the boundaries and make someone look edgy, but it only really comes across that way to people who buy into that system. To everyone else, it’s just racist.
The thing about using racist content in an “ironic” context is that it still perpetuates racist ideas, and it is, in fact, racist. While people may ardently claim that they are not racist, the people who engage in hipster racism are overwhelmingly white and middle class, and they clearly have some unaddressed racial issues which are being subverted in their attempts to be edgy. Sometimes, they are actually explicitly racist, and they are using hipster racism as a way of presenting their racism in a way which will be acceptable within their social groups.” —
THANK YOU. I get so annoyed by hipster casual racism, especially here in Australia where people find it funny to go “FIVE DORAH! FIVE DORAH!” and then get annoyed at you if you call them out on it because you’re not letting them have their joke. This crap still affects us, guys.
I lacked the time and patience to RSVP to all fiddylebbenhunnid day parties that piqued my interest during SXSW; I dislike having to jump through hoops to attend events that are supposed to be free and open to the public. Therefore, I was thankful when Fat Tony, the God MC of Houston DIY hip-hop, blessed me with a wristband guaranteeing admission to day parties at the Levi’s Fader Fort. Those sponsors weren’t kidding: for that week, they turned a normally abandoned field of grass into an actual fort, where the alcohol was free, food and clothing vendors greeted you at every turn, and the big stage was covered by an even bigger white tarp. Even if there was nothing else going on in the city, I could’ve stayed in the Fort all week and had a good time. Still, I was too restless to see more than two bands there.
I began the second day of SXSW by watching Neon Indian at the Fader Fort. Main Indian Alan Palomo (whom, in the interest in full disclosure, I once played a show with when he performed under the name Vega) was one of the first artists I’ve heard associated with the chill-wave sub-genre. However, He may be the most extreme of the bunch: his recorded material has the lowest fidelity, but his live set may be the loudest. His three-piece live band blew his debut album Psychic Chasms’ best songs up with booming drums and distorted guitars until they sounded more like glam-rock than chill-wave. The sound system had trouble handling it all, but the band persevered and brought the fort down anyway.
Local Natives played next; although I liked what I’d heard of their music up to that point, I wasn’t sure that their performance would live up to Neon Indian’s. My doubts disappeared by the midpoint of set opener “Camera Talk.” Hearing them build each song up piecemeal – tick-tock drumming, muscular bass lines, winding guitar interplay, and (most importantly) exquisite four-part harmonies – was like watching five expert stitchers create Magic Eye quilts every four minutes. Their set drew exclusively from the first half of last year’s debut album Gorilla Manor, but they could’ve played anything from it and I’d have been happy.
After Local Natives’ set ended, I walked to the French Legation Museum to watch Julianna Barwick perform. Julianna’s method is simple: she sings through an effects pedal connected to a loop station, layering her voice atop itself until it sounds like a choir singing in the world’s most reverberant church. You’d have to be uncoordinated and tone-deaf NOT to make gorgeous music through this method, but she clearly knows what she’s doing. The last time I heard music like this when second-generation shoegazers Lovesliescrushing released Chorus, an album constructed entirely from digitally-processed vocals. Julianna’s EP Florine is even better, though.
I maneuvered my way through the massive crowd that had already gathered at the other side of the French Legation Museum so that I could get a good spot to watch the XX, who were scheduled to headline the Museum’s day party. However, I had to sit through another band’s set first in order to keep my spot, which would’ve annoyed me if said band sucked. Fortunately, the Dum Dum Girls were wonderful. Their visual and sonic impact was immediate: four dark-haired, long-legged women in short skirts playing noisy pop songs that gave the Psychocandy template back to the 1960s girl groups the Jesus and Mary Chain was too standoffish to truly emulate. They could’ve spent a bit more time tuning their guitars between songs, but I may have been the only attendee who noticed.
I was a latecomer to the XX bandwagon for two reasons: their vocalists, particularly the bassist, sound flat and bored, and the music is the biggest Young Marble Giants rip-off I’ve ever heard. However, their self-titled debut album grew on me once I realized that every song was good; that songs that intimate shouldn’t be sung by powerhouses anyway; and that there are much worse and more obvious bands to be influenced by. I found it ironic that the bassist, whose voice was even raspier and flatter live, also had more stage presence than either of his band mates. I was impressed, though, by how much melody he and the guitarist eked out of so few notes. What truly sealed the deal for me was the live MPC drumming, which supplied enough low end to make my feet feel ticklish.
You stay home, she goes out
She says that long ago she knew someone but now he’s gone
She doesn’t need him
Your day breaks, your mind aches
There will be times when all the things she said will fill your head
You won’t forget her
And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years..
For No One, The Beatles (via rororoyourboat)
This is one of many songs that UTTERLY DESTROY my heart when I hear them.
Technically, SXSW forbids attendees from photographing showcases unless they have official photo passes, but I’ve rarely seen this rule enforced. This year’s exception was a bouncer at the Amsterdam Café, a venue I’d never patronized before SXSW, who chastised me for taking pictures of Children Collide, an Australian trio that I’d never heard of before SXSW. How sadistic is it to deny music junkies like myself the opportunity to document once-in-a-lifetime events like that? Anyway, Children Collide sounds like the Vines at their angriest, which means that they sound like Nirvana gone apoplectic. As soon as I turned my camera off, the guitarist and bassist started swinging their instruments around the stage like bats, a perfect rock moment that I regretfully failed to capture.
It was actually Papier Tigre, the band that played after them, that I came to see. If the Dischord label ever opened its roster up to non-D.C. acts, this French trio’s music would fit snugly: its unpredictable tempos, jagged guitar interplay, and vocal Sprechstimme particularly recall Q and Not U’s early works. Their drummer accelerated and decelerated so much that I kept waiting for him to totally drop the beat; he never did, though, and the rest of the band stayed in total sync with him. I was impressed with the lead guitarist’s multitasking skills: he occasionally played guitar and auxiliary percussion simultaneously, and his crunchy tone ably compensated for the lack of a bassist.
After Papier Tigre’s set, I returned to Central Presbyterian Church to watch German pianist/composer Hauschka perform. A small crowd had already gathered around the piano to watch him place various objects between, underneath and atop the strings. These preparations broadened the tonal and percussive range of the piano: at various points during the set, it sounded like a dulcimer, a tamboura, or a plucked cello. When Hauschka emptied a bag of golf balls into the piano, the audience couldn’t help but laugh. However, his techniques never felt gimmicky, for his compositions were gorgeous and heartfelt. Most of the compositions came from Ferndorf, a concept album about his childhood, and he explained them with anecdotes about long walks with pretty girls and gang rivalries at public swimming pools. With the help of a string quartet, Hauschka also performed a few compositions from his upcoming album, all of which moved me to tears.
Once I regained my composure, I headed to Klub Krucial to catch Canadian crooner Ayah’s showcase. Ayah was another must-see act for me, as her debut 4:15 A.M. was the most impressive R&B album I’d heard in a while: teasingly short yet consistently well-executed, with a sound that I once described as “Mary J. Blige singing atop Dilla beats.” Her set was mellower than expected, due to her having convened a backing band at the last minute. If I’d have known far enough in advance, I’d have volunteered my services! The absence of a drummer made her work harder to get and keep the audience’s attention; fortunately, her charming banter neatly matched her conversational singing. Every musician played well (I’d be remiss not to mention the presence of Charly East on violin), and every song was a gem. I hope Ayah comes back soon!
I ended the first night of SXSW 2010 by watching reunited local legends Sixteen Deluxe play a scorching set at Encore. This was my second violation of the “no local bands” rule, but I was in high school when this band peaked, and was too young to catch them live the first time around. This band, like many others I loved as a youth, never quite recovered from its disastrous dalliance with a major label. Unlike most of them, though, Sixteen Deluxe made its best work during the dalliance: 1998’s Emits Showers of Sparks is a minor masterpiece of second-generation shoegaze. The band wisely focused on Sparks and its predecessor Backfeedmagnetbabe during its set. Co-founders Carrie’s and Chris’ vocals were barely audible underneath their unceasingly loud, heavily-effected guitars - which, of course, were exactly the way they should’ve sounded. My ears felt like they’d been dipped in molten lava during “Honey,” one of the best My Bloody Valentine tributes I’ve heard any band do. Chris looked particularly happy to be there, jumping and doing windmills around the stage like a techie Pete Townshend. Because of Sixteen Deluxe, I went home with ringing ears and a happy heart.
After Washed Out’s set, I lingered at the Mohawk’s outside stage a bit longer to watch the Besnard Lakes, a Canadian shoegaze band that numerous trusted publications have praised recently. I was amused by the front man’s uncanny resemblance to Todd Rundgren, but his band’s music quickly proved disappointing. Although all four members are good singers and musicians, their songs’ perpetually sluggish tempos made their set drag. After a handful of songs, I got bored and left. I listened to their latest album The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night twice today, in the hope that their studio recordings would trigger an epiphany, but not even the gorgeous production could conceal the music’s general dullness.
I walked to the Creekside Lounge to watch Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, whose song “Take Off Your Sunglasses” was one of the weirdest out of the nearly 650 mp3s in South by Southwest’s official torrent of this year’s showcasing acts. Ezra’s singing style is a hybrid of David Byrne’s tics and Conor Oberst’s logorrhea. His voice should annoy the hell out of me, especially when laid atop his band’s otherwise forgettable alt-country backdrops, but the sheer ecstasy in his delivery carries him through every song. I’d have spent his entire set shouting his choruses back at him with the drunk balding middle-aged white dudes around me…
…if it wasn’t for my desire to get to the Beauty Bar on time to see the first of a whopping 13 shows that boogie-funk torch-bearer Dam-Funk scheduled for this year’s SXSW. In my opinion, Toeachizown was last year’s most audaciously accomplished debut. Despite a limited palette of squelchy synthesizers, vocoded singing and syncopated drum machines, Dam-Funk’s near-symphonic arrangements held my interest for the double-CD’s entire running time. Thus, he was my primary must-see act this year, and he didn’t disappoint. He sang new lyrics atop previously instrumental cuts, his unprocessed voice sounding much better live than it does on record, and unveiled new material that showed no signs of creative stagnation. His set was teasingly brief, but I had the feeling that it wouldn’t be the last one I’d see of his that week.
After an hour or so spent emptying my guts due to too much beer and sun and not enough food (I got my requisite SXSW debauchery out of the way early, it seems), I chilled at the Central Presbyterian Church for a while to watch Balmorhea’s official showcase. I broke two of my SXSW rules by doing this - no bands I’ve seen live before, and no local bands – but Balmorhea’s one of the few bands in this city worth breaking them for. Their most recent album Constellations is full of subtle, subdued songs that demand almost too much of the listener’s attention. What better setting, then, could there be than a church for Balmorhea to give them life? The sextet’s three-piece string section was given more room to flesh out the album’s quieter songs, and the church’s cavernous reverb functioned like a seventh member. As if to silence critics of Constellations, Balmorhea ended their set with a short, fast and loud new song that got my blood racing.
The sun had finally set by the time I left the Church, and the evening breeze helped me recuperate from my afternoon sickness…which is fortunate because if it hadn’t, Boats front man Mat Klatchefsky’s helium-high squeak of a voice would’ve made me even queasier. I couldn’t have been the only person at the Tap Room at Six who felt a bit of cognitive dissonance upon pairing Mat’s tall, bulky, hairy visage with his eunuch throat. Fortunately, his band’s bouncy, jangly pop songs are good enough to overcome the dissonance. Mat’s voice isn’t even that bad: he hits the notes he reaches, which is more than I can say for many singers with more conventional voices. Fans of Modest Mouse’s last few albums would find a lot to like in this Canuck quintet’s music.
One of the first rules I set for my South by Southwest 2010 experience was to only see bands that I haven’t seen live before. Of course, I broke this rule as soon as the festival began by watching Grooms perform at the Music Gym, despite having attended their show at the Mohawk three months ago. In my defense, Grooms subbed for a heretofore unseen band that canceled all of its SXSW appearances at the last minute. Still, I’d never complain about seeing a band as good as Grooms live. This New York City trio’s sound is just as deliciously dissonant as Sonic Youth’s or Polvo’s, but the recent addition of hyperkinetic drummer Jim Sykes has given their live show a power absent from their recordings. If their unreleased set closer “Into the Arms” is any indication, though, their next album will DESTROY.
After Grooms’ set, I walked to the Mohawk to watch Toro y Moi perform on the inside stage. I’ve read many articles over the last few months about the “chill-wave” subgenre created to describe artists like Toro y Moi. To me, most of it sounds like low-budget recreations of the mellower moments of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion album. Toro y Moi has every sonic signifier down pat: adenoidal vocals run through excessive echo; hypnagogic textures generated by tweaking layers of keyboards and samples; and nubbly drum programming. What surprised me about Toro y Moi’s set was main man Chazwick Bundick’s stage presence. He used every hands-free moment to dance and wander around the stage; he seemed more into his music than the predictably still audience was. His brief attempt at My Bloody Valentine-style whammy-bar guitar playing was clumsy, but otherwise the set was a treat. You’ve gotta love a guy who covers up half of the Korg logo on his keyboard with tape to make it say “OG” instead.
I then walked to Emo’s to watch Canadian duo Japandroids play on the outside stage. I knew that their perpetually anthemic songs would jolt me out of the relaxed state that Toro y Moi’s set put me on, and I was instantly proven right. The venue’s lackluster sound system muddied guitarist Brian King’s already thick tone, and the band’s rendition of “Rockers East Vancouver” was marred by an out-of-tune string. However, the band’s energy never decreased, and the great songs just kept coming. Their last three songs formed an especially galvanizing victory lap. During set closer “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” Brian breathlessly sang, “I don’t wanna worry about dying/I just wanna worry about sunshine girls.” This couplet felt sadly apt later on in the day, as news of renowned singer/songwriter Alex Chilton’s death reached the city.
I bolted from Emo’s to Peckerheads to catch as much as I could of Maps and Atlases’ set. If there’s any band I can call “math-pop” with a straight face, it’s this one. Their fleetly finger-tapped guitar parts and stuttered rhythms are employed in service of sweetly sung, genuinely catchy songs, performed with an immediately endearing humility. The band’s set was divided evenly between highlights from their 2008 EP You and Me and the Mountain and songs from their upcoming debut full-length, which I predict will be a stunner.
After Maps and Atlases’ set, I returned to the Mohawk to watch Washed Out perform on the outside stage. Like Toro y Moi, Washed Out is affiliated with the “chill-wave” subgenre. However, Washed Out’s recordings are rawer; their songs are also more conventionally danceable due to main man Ernest Greene’s fondness for 1980s soft-rock and synth-pop. Despite this set being his 10th live performance ever, Ernest had no problem getting the packed standing area to dance with him. He turned the party up a notch by inviting the members of Small Black, who happen to be touring with him, on stage to add instrumental heft to his last few songs. The collaboration made me curious to hear more of Small Black’s material; I’ll be sure to report my findings once I do.
This past weekend, I did some pre-gaming for South by Southwest, the music nerd’s version of March Madness, by visiting Houston to watch my friend Fat Tony play shows on two consecutive nights. I plan to write a full-length review of his long-awaited debut album RABDARGAB once I hear it in its entirety; for now, though, let it suffice to say that he trails only behind Scarface and Bun B as my favorite Texan MC. He doesn’t have a single weak song, I’ve never seen him play a bad set, and he has a knack for organizing diverse and consistently entertaining shows.
On Friday, Fat Tony performed at the Tipping Point, which advertises itself as “Houston’s first and only sneaker lifestyle store,” as part of the inaugural show of Charly East’s “Artbreak” series. Charly, a Houston native who currently attends Boston’s Berklee College of Music, created this series to showcase her music and artwork. After listening to her 33rd of Neveruary EP and reading her often hilarious tweets and blog entries, I’d grown quite fond of her. I heard in her music and saw in her personality the same traits that made me a diehard Betty Davis fan: self-containment, sexuality, sarcasm and tenderness.
Local MC A.d.D. kicked things off with a three-song set that sounded like it could’ve come from three different people. He began with an explosive freestyle rhyme; performed “I Don’t Know,” a jazzy, pensive rumination on his adolescence; and closed with “You and I,” a love song with a squelchy G-funk beat. Fortunately, all three songs were good, and A.d.D.’s energy carried him through the few lulls. He’ll be on to something great once he finds his signature sound.
Uno y Dos played next. I’d befriended both members in person and online months ago, but this set was my first real exposure to their music. Their Afro-futurist take on hip-hop greatly impressed me: spacious and spacey without being goofy or pretentious. The interplay between MC Billy and MC/singer Brittany reminded me of Georgia Anne Muldrow and Dudley Perkins. After their set, the duo informed me that they’ve almost finished their debut album; I’ll be first in line to cop a copy once it’s done.
Fat Tony, as usual, wrecked shop with a series of highlights from RABDARGAB (“What I’m ‘Bout,” “My Babe,” “Home”), as well as the title track of his 2008 EP Love Life. He didn’t perform more than two verses of any song, a tendency that frustrates me when other MCs do it, but felt more appropriate this evening due to the brevity of everyone else’s sets.
Charly East’s headlining set was a revelation. Standing on the window ledge with a microphone in one hand, a violin and bow in the other, and a confidence that only occasionally betrayed the anxiety of a first-time performer, she immediately captivated the audience. She performed two new songs, both of which were better than anything on 33rd of Neveruary, alternating between fiercely rapped verses and sweetly sung choruses. She then played a long violin solo atop randomly chosen beats by iPod Ammo, the evening’s DJ. I can’t remember the last time I felt that star-struck over a performer who’s nowhere near famous. She will be, though, if she keeps going.
As if seeing four great performing acts wasn’t enough, there was also a free open bar AND a raffle. I won a painting that one of Charly’s friends made of a naked brown torso; I also bought one of Charly’s own paintings for good measure. Now I can put something on the walls of my new bedroom other than show fliers! I wanted to buy a pair of sneakers from the venue, but I didn’t want to spend my whole paycheck in one fell swoop. I got tipsy off of Bacardi rum and Coke, made a few new friends, and had a generally good time. Hopefully, I’ll see Charly again when she plays violin for Ayah at SXSW this week; I’ll try not to blush TOO hard…