Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

SXSW Friday: Ben Caplan / Dusted / Lissie

March 19, 2013

After a morning of writing, I had no concrete plans. Thankfully, I have some standby venues that I hit when I’m at SXSW: Canada House and Ireland House. I’ve had good luck with both in my three years at SXSW, so I seek them out now. This particular morning, I headed to Friends Bar to catch some Canadian acts.

The great thing about Canada’s presence at SXSW is that they take great care to make their venue welcoming. I got a free well drink ticket and food just for walking in the door, and every member of Team Canada was enthusiastic about my presence in their venue. You can see good music in a lot of places at SXSW; you can’t get great hospitality much of anywhere. Viva la Canadians.

I walked in just as singer/songwriter Ben Caplan went on, and I was charmed by his energetic, quirky tunes. Caplan has a flair for sweeping, wordless melodies (which often sound vaguely Russian, oddly) to accent his insightful lyrics. His low voice can grow to a giant, booming call, which is always fun to hear. Also fun was his stage banter, which was genuinely hilarious. At one point Caplan noted, “I know you are all music industry professionals, but you were once people who liked to clap along and participate.” I subsequently clapped. If you’re a fan of dramatic, entertaining singer/songwriters, Caplan should be on your team.

One of my favorite Canadian songwriters is John K. Samson, whether he’s solo or with The Weakerthans. His power-pop hits the sweet spot between clever and winsome, both in music and lyric. I was pleased to hear that Dusted, although a bit darker in their moods, captured a similar vibe. After humorously noting that they would be shortening their set by cutting all the guitar solos from their songs to help out the venue on time constraints, the duo launched into a tight set of power-pop.

The tunes relied heavily on the interactions between the guitar, vocals and drums; the rhythms and melodies don’t stand alone in Dusted tunes. The whole thing works together to create the vibe. I totally didn’t know this until right now, but Brian Borcherdt of Holy Fuck is actually in the band. I can assure you, nothing even remotely gives an electronica vibe: this is a straight-up power-pop band. Dusted’s set was one of my favorite from the festival: instead of being ostentatious or dramatic, it simply got down to business and delivered the goods. Excellent stuff.

I left Friends to go join some friends over at Paste/HGTV’s stage, where Lissie was about to go on. Her pop-rock material was solid, with some interesting new songs. The highlight was her cover of Kid Cudi’s “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which was transformed from a drunken rumination on debauchery into a howling treatise on happiness and its often difficult pursuit. It’s always impressive to me when a band reveals a new side of a song simply by putting their own voice to it, so I loved hearing Lissie’s take on the tune.

Starlight Girls' indie-pop is deep or not, if you want it to be

January 6, 2012

I deeply enjoy Starlight Girlsself-titled EP, but I’ve thrown in the towel on three four different intros (and a conclusion!) because they all sucked. It’s been a long day that included a freelance writing assignment on boxing, which is not the easiest thing for me to write about. However, the day’s been made better by the Starlight Girls’ debut EP, which amalgamates tons of genres into surprisingly coherent and immediate indie-pop.

The five songs here are each enjoyable on the first listen, and that’s quite rare. This is a testament to the band’s tight chemistry and (I assume) strong work ethic, as they combine elements from all over the place to make their tunes work. The band is fond of whirring organs (a la the similarly monikered Starlight Mints), ’70s/’80s singer/songwriter moods (like Stevie Nicks, although it’s easier to say “sounds like Lissie and/or Tristen”), confident female vocals, bass-heavy arrangements that call up a bit of post-rock moodiness (The National, Del Bel), and surf-rock rhythms, among other things.

It’s fascinating that this grabbed me immediately, because I found that it’s a rather complicated amalgam once I sat down to write about it. While this deep analysis will make you feel good about liking the Starlight Girls’ seemingly simple tunes, you definitely don’t need it to enjoy the songs; just listen and you’ll like them. The EP is the definition of critical darling: it can be both a game of spot-the-influence or just enjoyable melodies and rhythms. That’s a tough balance to strike.

“Gossip” is the one with the feel-good surf-rock guitars and organ, while “Wallflower” is the one that could be an outtake of a Starlight Mints track, what with all the interlocking rhythms and melodies. “Wasteland” has a preternatural cool about it that comes from having a rhythm just faster than trip-hop. The chilled-out keys and vocals help the band toe the line between passion and stateliness that gives the tune and the whole album its desirable amount of tension.

Starlight Girls’ self-titled EP will appeal to lovers of classy, female-fronted indie bands that don’t sound like twee or Best Coast. I expect the band to make some waves in 2012.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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