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.
The Parmesans were one of my favorite discoveries in 2012, which makes me thrilled to hear a new batch of their quirky, Californian bluegrass tunes so quickly. The Smell of Silence is a worthy successor, delivering both a light atmosphere and serious musicianship. If the five-song EP’s title didn’t tip you off, the moniker of “Heinous Pit of Death” and the wolf howls in “Delirious Dream” should alert you: this isn’t self-serious revivalism. They are serious musicians, however, showing off their vocal and instrumental chops in melodic and interesting ways (“Spicy Cigarette,” “See For Yourself”). Their vocal harmonies are especially top-notch in the beautiful “Walls for the Wind,” a setting of a traditional Irish blessing. The Parmesans’ uncluttered, earnest approach fits the sentiments perfectly, resulting in a perfect closer for the EP. The Smell of Silence is a joy to hear.
Radio-friendly pop-punk has so dominated the high-tenor vocal range that it’s a tough fight to make that style vocals sound good in any other genre. But The Sun and the Sea make it work excellently in the indie-pop-rock of Vega. TSAS’s sound is much closer to the spacious, moody pop of Mae’s Destination: Beautiful, a personal favorite. There are crunchy electric guitars, tasteful electronic inclusions and soaring vocal melodies, but a more ambiguous, mature mood is the focus here. “Waves” and “One by One” employ towering crescendoes, while “Valiant” and “We Deal in Illusions” strike a more contemplative tone to get their message across. Some may hear this merely as pop-punk, but I think it’s got too much nuance to be lumped pejoratively in that category. If you’re interested in the work of indie-pop-rock like John K. Samson, I think you’ll like Vega very much.
I heard that The Mars Volta broke up the other day, and I had a moment of silence for the loss of a spazzy, idiosyncratic band willing to follow its own vision. Cyan Marble has a better plan to celebrate TMV’s disappearance than silence: a three-song EP that follows in Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s very large footsteps. Mirror EP has everything you could want: crazy breakdowns, astonishing bass work, drastic mood changes, wild juxtapositions, even sky-high male vocals. Cyan Marble has its chops on display, but it also shows that it can write a compelling tune: “Monoceros” strikes a solid rhythmic and melodic groove and is easily identifiable as its own tune. The parenthetical after Mirror EP is (Demo), so this is only the beginning for this math/post/whatever-rock band, and I’d say they’re very worth keeping tabs on.
The album isn’t dead, as you’ll see when my top albums of the year list rolls around tomorrow. But these songs stuck out over and above the albums that encompassed them–or not, as #4’s album has yet to be released. Viva la album, viva la single.
I usually like to get this post to a nice round number, but I didn’t get it there this year. Here’s what my year sounded like, y’all! This post isn’t ranked; instead, it’s a playlist of sorts. My ranked post will come tomorrow.
I listen to so much pop music that I’m impervious to humming all but the catchiest of tunes. But even my melodically jaded self can’t stop from singing along with “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” by John K. Samson. The leader of the Weakerthans’ new solo album is called Provincial, and it includes the aforementioned power-pop gem. Samson’s excellent vocals carry a thoughtful, wry set of lyrics about the difficulty of monumental tasks which will appeal to an audience far larger than just graduate students. Add to that a perky Weezer/Fountains of Wayne guitar line, and you’ve got gold.
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.