I had heard that On An On were garnering a lot of buzz, but I must admit that I hadn’t heard any of their dance-pop before watching their set. (I’m part of the problem! I admit it!) I was pleasantly surprised by their sound, an artsy tack that landed somewhere between the quirky excesses of Hot Chip and the way-out-there sounds of MGMT’s second album. The band was very clearly energetic and enthusiastic, but they rarely resorted to dance-rock drumbeats or cliched dance-pop melodies. Instead, they built indie-rock songs that happened to be fun to dance along with. The band told us from the stage that they were celebrating their one-year anniversary that day, which was impressive: for a sound this clear and strong, I’d have expected much more time tweaking and developing. But sometimes you hit a home run on your first at-bat, you know?
I stepped inside to watch The Zombies, who were most certainly not in their first at-bat. The very polite British men set about schooling us on how much of the classic rock radio canon they had written. They would introduce a song with a backstory, then announce the title to great applause, then launch into an incredibly familiar tune. I thought repeatedly, “They wrote this?!” And they did. It was an incredibly fun set to hear, as the British pop was excellently performed. The Zombies may have formed in 1962, but they’ve still got it. Rock on, Zombies. Rock on.
The 1975 took the stage with a brand of dance-inspiring indie-rock similar to On An On’s. The 1975’s is more rooted in indie-rock sounds than pop sounds, with some electronic groove thrown in. The songs are triumphant in sound, with the band creating environments ripe for cathartic guitar lines, epic sung melodies, and booming bass parts. It is profoundly fun to listen to. The best part about this gleeful sound is that the band of young Brits looks completely downtrodden while playing their tunes, making a strange and hilarious juxtaposition. Even with their not-so-smiley disposition, the band played a great set that set me to dancing. Highly recommended.
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.
So I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 a.m. to get downtown by 8 to see Frightened Rabbit play live for KUT. I made it by 8:15 and was able to catch the last few songs of Scott Hutchison’s solo set. I was especially fond of “State Hospital” and old-school inclusion “The Modern Leper,” both of which translated quite nicely to the acoustic setting. Hutchison’s singing voice is simply a goldmine of emotive energy, and it was just as impressive live as it is recorded. Hutchison’s sense of humor was in fine form, as he cracked clever jokes between songs and had the audience smiling and happy to be awake that early in the morning. Wish I could have seen more, but whoa, 8 a.m. was early.
However, I caught the full set of Josh Ritter’s recording, which was absolutely astonishing. I’ve been in love with his new release The Beast in Its Tracks, which came out March 5. He played the four best tunes from it (“Joy to You, Baby” “New Lover,” “Hopeful,” “The Appleblossom Rag”), covered John Prine’s beautiful “Mexican Home,” and invited Hutchison back out to duet with him on The Animal Years‘ “Girl in the War.” “Girl” is my favorite Ritter song that I haven’t heard live, as he didn’t play it when I saw him a few years ago. To see it performed with not one but two of my favorite vocalists in the world was absolutely thrilling. It was easily the highlight of SXSW so far and probably for the rest of SXSW too: it will be incredibly hard to top that.
Ritter’s easygoing songwriting and incisive lyrical turns are just as masterful as Isbell’s, but are delivered in a vastly different way. Instead of booming and commanding his way through the tunes, Ritter playfully stepped through them, tossing off jaw-dropping lyrics as if it were easy to write them. He and an accompanying acoustic guitarist also made the tunes sound easy as well, rolling through the tunes with an easy swagger. If you haven’t heard The Beast in Its Tracks, you really need to: it’s going to be on my end of year list for sure. Simply a brilliant performance by Josh Ritter, both in album and on stage.
I love St. David’s Episcopal Church, because they host not one but two of my favorite venues in all of SXSW. Their chapel and hall are both excellent places to watch shows: no hustle and bustle, (usually) no noisy electronica, no nonsense, just good singer/songwriters. This year is no exception. I stepped in during Henry Wagons‘ set of rockabilly-inflected folk and was immediately impressed. Wagons’ pointed sense of humor, arresting baritone voice and jaunty tunes struck a great chord in me. The audience laughed through the punchlines and his fun stage antics, even getting involved when Wagons would call out various members of the audience as the “inspiration” or “dedication” of the song. I absolutely loved the set, and was glad to “point my head in the general direction of” Henry Wagons.
Amanda Shires played her whole set on a ukulele, which made this uke player incredibly happy. Her deeply lyrical tunes hung on each word she delivered, with husband Jason Isbell’s intricate single-note guitarwork providing melodic counterpoint to her voice and uke. She played several songs off her new album, which will be released at a date to be announced: fans of women songwriters with strong lyrical and melodious voices should take notice.
I was there in St. David’s to see Jason Isbell, who I first saw on one of my first days in Auburn, AL. As I am about to voyage out of Alabama in search of the next adventure, seeing Isbell was a fitting bookend to my time in the Yellowhammer State. Isbell’s roaring voice and emotional storytelling were absolutely gripping in St. David’s chapel; his voice and guitar filled the space. He played tunes off his new album Southeastern, which comes out June 11th, and I can tell you that I can hardly wait for the album. The new tunes were evocative lyrically and melodically, made even more poignant by Shires’ keening fiddle accompaniment. Isbell also played the crowd favorite “Alabama Pines” (which will most likely be how I remember Alabama) and even the Drive-by Truckers’ “Decoration Day.”
The audience was in his thall: when he sang a few tunes about war veterans returned to the South, the crowd was especially noisy in its appreciation. At the end of the set, he received a well-earned standing ovation immediately. It’s not often that you get to hear a master songwriter perform in an intimate setting, but that’s what happened last night. I thoroughly recommend Jason Isbell to you.
After a writing break, I hustled on over to The Blind Pig to catch The Jim Ivins Band at the Ernie Ball stage. I’ve covered Jim Ivins for a while, and I’m a fan of their catchy pop-rock tunes. I was really impressed, however, by how much they rocked them out live: “Sight of Fire” and “Everything We Wanted,” two of my faves, were way heavier than I remembered them being, with pounding drums, heavy bass and ripping guitar. But I still could sing along to the choruses, which are stellar. It’s always fun to see a band that I’ve covered for a long time in the flesh, and Jim Ivins Band was no exception. If you’re into Matt Nathanson-style pop-rock with a wicked rock’n’roll bent tossed in, Jim Ivins Band should be on your radar.
I stuck around after Jim Ivins to see The Horde and the Harem based on the strength of their name and their hometown of Seattle, WA. I was not disappointed, as the quartet mixed gypsy-indie folk (a la Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) with the perkiness of a “Lust for Life” dance-rock band. The band routinely called upon four vocalists, often with several of them singing not just harmonies but true counterpoint melodies and rhythms. The resulting unique textures to their songs kept me engaged through each tune. Their overall enthusiasm was endearing as well: the pianist bobbed, hopped, shook her head and grinned through the entire set, while the rest of the band did similarly. THaTH got the crowd involved, teaching them to sing a melody and asking them to clap along. It was a blast to hear them play, and the long set ended too soon for my taste. If you like music that resembles a party among friends, then THaTH will tickle your musical funnybone. It was another thrilling SXSW find.
Since I was doing well at The Blind Pig, I stuck around for the Beautiful Bodies. I didn’t know what to expect from them, but I was enlightened about 10 seconds into their set. The modern rock band bounced around the stage, ran through the audience, climbed on gear, banged into each other and interacted with the audience before the first song was up. They had moved more in three minutes than The Horde and The Harem had in their entire set, and I just mentioned how bouncy THaTH was. In short, this set was an athletic event for both band and audience, as the listeners got into it with dancing. One male audience member in particular danced like mad, making the most of the fact that the female lead singer pretty much only sang from the audience and not the stage. He and her danced around for several songs, which was awesome. The band’s modern-rock was air-tight and incredibly well-done: the band knew how their sound worked and exploited it for all it could produce. I don’t really like modern rock, but The Beautiful Bodies know how to throw a show, for sure.
What would you do if your first introduction to a band was, “I’M ABOUT TO GET HIT WITH A PIE IN THE FACE! COME SEE OUR SHOW! IT HAPPENS RIGHT NOW!”? If you’re various passersby on Sixth Street yesterday, you watch Cobalt and The Hired Guns pie themselves in the face, then walk into Bourbon Girl to watch their show. This pleased me greatly, as I had slotted Cobalt as my top must-see band for SXSW. Their pop-punk-rock tunes were some of my favorite in 2012, and their live renditions were everything I hoped they’d be. The Chicago quartet barreled through a half-hour of songs just crammed to the gills with clever lyrics and singalong melodies. It was hard for me to not be thrilled while watching Cobalt, as their tunes were just too perky and fun to be dour-faced. If you take the storytelling sensibility of The Hold Steady, filter it through the exuberance of a pop-punk band, and add a liberal amount of cello and glockenspiel, you’ve got Cobalt. If you’re not intrigued by this, I don’t know if this blog can help you. Seriously. Cobalt and the Hired Guns’ set was one of the most fun I’ve seen at SXSW so far.
After shooting the breeze with Tomlinson of Cobalt, I stepped next door to the Canada House at Friends Bar. Canada House is one of my favorite stops at SXSW, as they always have stellar lineups; Friends is impressed upon my soul forever, since I covered two years of The Buffalo Lounge there. Putting the two together was just a joy to my soul. That joy was compounded when Royal Canoe stepped up to the stage with their army of keyboards and guitars. By my best count, the Manitoba band had six keyboards, five guitars, and a nigh on uncountable amount of pedals at their disposal. The fact that the set started almost exactly on time was pretty much a miracle in my mind.
They used their vast store of musical instruments to create incredibly intricate indie-pop tunes that sounded like a progression from The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin: great pop hooks were filtered through unusual rhythms, quirky sounds, pitch-shifted vocals, and an unpredictable songwriting sense. In many bands, it’s easy to tell where the genesis of a song came from: with Royal Canoe’s tunes, it was impossible to discern the main riff or melody. Instead, the whole song had to be taken at face value, with each new part being enjoyed for its own discrete joys. This sounds like it would be a very disjointed listening experience, but it was actually an astonishingly coherent one; even though I couldn’t tell what was holding the tunes together, the sextet knew exactly what was going on when. The sound was confident, assured, and intoxicating. Royal Canoe’s set was unlike any I’ve seen so far at SXSW, and that’s impressive. Definitely one of my best finds of the fest so far.
During Cobalt’s set, I realized that I had lost my SD card on my camera, so there are no pictures for any further bands. That’s sad, because I really wanted to get a picture of the tattoo that the lead singer of Imaginary Cities had. Being the Manitoba Music showcase and all, it isn’t completely surprising that a tattoo of Manitoba was chilling on his arm. But it was still impressive and endearing, especially since Manitoba and my home state of Oklahoma have a lot in common (both are far from mountains and water, both are largely plains, both have a Tornado Alley, both have vast swaths of rural areas, both have a city named Winnipeg – just kidding). Also impressive was Imaginary Cities’ music, the sort that blends guitar-pop, folk and singer/songwriter seamlessly. Male and female vocalists split time, creating a diverse, beautiful range of sounds. The sound was eminently listenable: I sat back and relaxed on a chair and just took it in for the first time at SXSW. After running around like a chicken with my head cut off, hearing an audio invitation to relax and let things happen was wonderful. I look forward to hearing their new album, which comes out in May.
On recommendation, I rolled out of bed and made it to Cedar Street for an early-start day show. Even with my (relatively) early start, I missed Olafur Arnalds’s set (!!). However, I showed up in time to watch Brit-poppers Bastille‘s piano-pop set. I unabashedly love Coldplay, OneRepublic and other bands of that stripe, so Bastille was right up my alley. Huge sung choruses supported by hammering piano, towering drums and arena rock moves like climbing the rafters are firmly within Bastille’s wheelhouse and my heart. The tenor vocalist did a great job of appropriating soaring vocals without getting yelpy, which was a blessing. The electronic touches that wove in and out of the sound were a credit to their sound as well. I expect to hear this band take over the radio within a year: “Pompeii” is simply too much of a feel-good anthem (despite its depressing lyrics; hey, if it worked for fun….) to pass up.
Charli XCX was up next on the same stage, so I stuck around. I heard of her through association with Swedish electro-pop michief makers Icona Pop, and Charli purveys a similar brand of electro-pop. Hers is less clubby hooks and huge synths and more Grimes-ian electro intricacies. At times it felt like I was listening to a pastiche of the last ten years of electro trends. This was largely a good thing: Charli’s pop sense was honed well enough to know where to cut off the trendy bits before they reached excess. At her best, she reached near the dancy pop bliss of Robyn’s work, although with a much hipper bent. It was a fun set to watch, if not exactly in my area of expertise (or in the right time and place, as it went down outside on a bright, sunburn-inducing Texas afternoon).
The literate story-songs of Dawes were high on my list to see at SXSW, so I took my chance to see them kick it at HGTV/Paste stage. Lead singer Taylor Goldsmith kicked off the set by noting that they did not have all of their gear with them because of the multiple shows they had to play during the day, so I braced myself for a song or two that I would otherwise expect to go missing. (And it was “When My Time Comes”! Tragedy!) But other than that disclaimer, the band threw down their conversational, easy-going sound with panache and little adieu.
Listening to Dawes is like standing next to Goldsmith and having a conversation: the well-delivered lyrics are intended to be heard, and the songwriting doesn’t get in the way of the dry yet emotive delivery to the punchlines. The songs can easily be sung along to, and the sound will just wash over and around you as you do so. The band closed with “A Little Bit of Everything,” which has some of my favorite lines in all of songwriting in the first and third verses. It was an excellent set, with the band hitting on all cylinders. If you’re a fan of country-rock, folky lyrics, or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, you’ll be all up in Dawes. A highlight of SXSW so far.
Later in the evening, I accidentally ended up in a set by The Black Angels. They made their brand of rock look easy: the incredible heaviness, the starts and stops, the roaring vocals, and the instantaneous jumps from quiet to loud all seemed to be effortless. It was a blast, and if you’re into rock you probably already know about The Black Angels. If you haven’t, though…
On recommendation from a friend who knows more about music than me, I checked out NYC synth-pop duo Carousel. He told me that it was beautiful and peppy stuff, and those are two of my favorite words. The music was indeed both. The duo both played keys/synths, while one took care of vocals and the other handled an electric guitar. Their synth-pop sounded like the second album that MGMT should have made: all gentle treble hooks and catchy bass-synth beats, sung in feathery, whispery vocals. I found myself dancing through the entire set, and no more happily than when they broke out a cover of Robyn’s “Dancing in the Dark.”* Their set was an absolute blast to be a part of, and I thoroughly recommend checking them out for some catchy, peppy synth-pop tunes. It was a perfect way to open SXSW.
Later in the evening I ducked out of The 512 to catch Lord Buffalo‘s set. Having covered Lord Buffalo’s excellent debut EP, I was intrigued to see how it translated live. The answer: apocalyptically. The band’s sweeping, post-rock sound is made largely with acoustic instruments, but not in any way you would expect. The drummer stands throughout, pounding on toms and snare with huge mallets. There’s no kick drum, but it’s not necessary: the rest of the band stomps enough for two or three kick drums. The quintet were so forceful in their stamping, stomping and hollering that they kept knocking over one of their amps, which made even more noise crashing to the ground.
Building off the pounding drums and foot percussion, the melodic drone comes from an organ of sorts, repetitive acoustic guitar lines, and swooning violin. The howled vocals and dissonant electric guitar cap off the maelstrom, creating great walls of doom-laden sound. But this is no aesthete exercise; the band oozed energy, as if they couldn’t get their songs out of themselves fast enough. At one point the violinist and the vocalist faced the front of the stage away from the microphones and just screamed into the air, unleashing a torrent of musical anguish/triumph from the band. It was shiver-inducing. If you’re into post-rock or the act of having goosebumps, Lord Buffalo is for you.
*2017 edit: I don’t know if this was Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” but it clearly wasn’t Robyn’s “Dancing in the Dark.”
The Kickstarter for Independent Clauses’ 10th birthday compilation album ended yesterday with $1432 donated! This will allow us to stream the album until the end of 2013, and then give away 4300+ free song downloads! I am blown away. Your support has exceeded my wildest dreams. The album will come out May 15, 2013! I am thrilled! I will keep you all posted on the details as they arise.
Also, I will be at SXSW starting tomorrow, so I will be running around Austin like a crazy person. If you’re in austin too, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with the acronym SXSW at the beginning of the subject line. I’d love to meet and say hello!
I will be posting here throughout the week, as well as at the Oklahoma Gazette and on Twitter at @scarradini. Here we go SXSW!
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.