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2011/03/31 / monteurhulot

SXSW // Another View

So I was Austin, Texas for a week, and I saw some humans and machines create some music. This led me to have opinions! Those opinions are about to be semi-thematically organized. Get ready.

1.

When trekking from a performance one is interested in seeing to the next, it’s highly likely that you will overhear a number of guitar-heavy rock bands, who, in the course of a half-minute or so, advertise themselves as occupying the space between agressively boring and actively irritating. Over the course of a few days, these small experiences can, in aggregate, incite a strong desires to never listen to a guitar band again, and can even make one wonder, in the words of Lazy Magnet, “Is Music Even Good?”

Fortunately, there are bands who can single-handedly renew one’s faith in rock music with guitars, and Beijing’s Carsick Cars are one of them. The bass/drums/guitar trio balances electric squall with emotional as well as Sonic Youth at their pop peaks, charging into each song in an emotive headlong rush even when just off the plain and laden with 7000 mile jetlag. Almost every one of their songs has an almost unspeakably deep sense of melancholy blended with hope, each a succinct argument for rock and roll as an international, transcultural phenomenon.

Cloud Nothings, who last year played in Saturday night’s bitter cold until they couldn’t feel their fingers, make a different case for being in a guitar band, one crafted from hurling the best of garage rock, power pop and pop-punk at each other and making sure to optimize the hooks.

2.

Other acts start from somewhere recognizeable as rock and go amazing new places. tUnE-yArDs plays a kind of radically maternal post-punk loner-folk basement jazz; earthy and odd; think the Raincoats (who, by the way, were well channeled right before this performance by similarly Bay Area-based Grass Widow) showing up to a Soul Coughing show in full Ghostbusters uniform. On the new album W H O K I L L, Merrill Garbus employs a fuller production sound and a wider set of instrumentalists, the horn section at times invoking the mossy Afrobeat of K Record’s Adrian Orange and Her Band. She ended the band’s set at the French Legation Museum with new single “Bizness,” represented by an excellent video.

Maps & Atlases (from Chicago), who probably should have been nine places higher on my 2010 best-of list, reminded me over the course of two shows that they’re one of the most singular bands currently operating. They’ve tangled their math-rock roots with wooden percussion and some 70’s afro-pop guitar stylings, making a music that manages to be very pop with a unique style of song construction, lead by an equally unique vocalist. I’m tempted to say that Dave Davison has the most affecting shrill yelp since Jeff Magnum. They’ve released a quite amusing video for Perch Patchwork’s (Barsuk) second single, “Living Decorations.”

Maps & Atlases shared a stage (well, parking lot) for one of their sets with LA’s goofy glow-hop wunderkind Baths, and while he only joined the band for an enjoyable final jam, he showed himself to be no slouch on the MPC.

Y’know, something like this:

Both artists should be arrested for being far too nice.

3.

There were those who did not play no rock ‘n’ roll, although they might suprise you with their R&B. Sam Amidon does not, as far as I know, have a unique style of song construction, but he has now released three wonderful full lengths of folk interpretations. He has recently worked with composer/arranger Nico Muhly and Icelandic producer and Bedroom Community label head Valgeir Sigurðsson; but in Austin he appeared alone with a guitar, banjo, fiddle, and his incredible voice, which sounds as though it has been germinating in Appalachian dirt for a century, making his still boyish looks and deadpan expression seem like a sly puzzle. The role of any interpreter should be to add an immortality to a work of art, and Amidon makes old folk tunes like “Climbing High Mountains” and “Pretty Fair Damsel” spell-bindingly memorable; he also manages to carve R. Kelly’s (“who, let’s admit, is probably the best song-writer of the last decade) “Relief” in stone, first explaining that the song at first made no sense to him, and eventually struck him as a brilliant piece about hope, then leading the crowd a sing-along to the chorus, pausing to add “That part’s not true yet” to the line “What a relief to know that the war is over.” He was surprisingly funny throughout, scatting along with an impromptu jazz solo, which he prefaced by saying “I’m going to play a guitar solo now, and it will be like we’re all going on a journey together.”

Here’s a video representation of what I just described.

If Sam Amidon stands for the artist as interpreter, ferrying art through time, Berlin duo Hundreds make live musical performance into a theatrical act, albeit an abstract one.

They manage to communicate things that are only imperfectly preserved on their eponymous full-length (out on sinnbus.) That album is full of slick tech-pop, but I hadn’t realized quite how precise the sounds are and how powerful the beats: when Hundreds were on stage, their music showed that it is not only heavily influenced by minimal techno, it can also function as such. The carefully co-ordinated lights and the controlled, slightly bizarre stage presence work with the music to create the impression of watching avant-garde theatre grounded in the milieu of contemporary German electronc music, full of androgynous post-sensuality, obscured sentimentality, tiny curling hints of insanity at the edges.

The highlight of the set may have been their re-working of the relentlessly catchy “Happy Virus,” moving the track further from Frou Frou and closer to the bent percussion of The Knife.

And here’s a video for “I love my Harbour.”

4.

Opposing the theatricality of Hundreds, Grimes and Juliana Barwick, engaged in a silent battle of reverbed sighing across Austin, both displayed a morecasual approach to performance that worked quite well. Barwick uses nothing but her voice and processing to create achingly lovely soundscapes, although at times she would decide to start her process of layering all over again, or apologetically ask if she was overloading the speakers.

(The Magic Place is out on Asthmatic Kitty.)

Claire Boucher (Grimes) also has layered and processed voice at the core of her music, although she adds keys and programmed beats, holding her microphone under the crook of her arm to play any parts requiring two hands. The loose, slightly imprecise nature of performance seems entwined with the intimate, personal nature of the music; both women seem to be singing to their machinery more than they are performing for an audience. The end result imparts the feeling of single-voice, single-guitar works of days gone by, stripped of its cliches and not weighed down with its accumulated baggage.

(Halfaxa is out on Arbutus records.)

5.

There were other groups one could not but dance to.

The inexplicably Munich-based Schlachthofbronx DJ’ed a set at the German music delegation’s luncheon, dropping their mix of dancehall, tropical house, and general world bass. Previous releasing singles on Man Recordings, Germany’s home for all things tropicalist and dropping a full-length of Disko B, their newest EP is on Mad Decent.

Casiokids hail from Bergen, Norway, and landed themselves in the backyard of an Austin housing co-op, their members deftly switching around instruments and climbing on top of their (sometimes failing) equipment to deliver their giddy, somewhat cure afro-infused dance-pop, giving away their game when, having finished a triumphant set, playe Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” while packing up.

Janka Nabay bucked all trends by actually being from Africa, Sierra Leone in particular. His high-tempo bubu music is very synthy, sometimes reminiscent of South Africa’s crazy tsonga disco/shangaan, sometimes sounding like hypercharged highlife. Playing his last show of SXSW, around 12 on Saturday night, he brought with him an American band who did a very admirable job of recreating his music, with special plaudits to the drummer for keeping up so many beats per minute for so long.

(The Bubu King EP is out on True Panther.)

Additional notes:

New Villagers was the best find of the week, Errors was great, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs performs with that comically large headdress from the Garden video, Mount Kimbie has the most beautiful blue gutiar, Heems is always drunk, Keepaway are weird dudes working on something new, Wye Oak produces a lot of sounds with only two members, Cults brought out a lot of identical looking guys with long hair who were probably mostly unneccessary, Glasser is far better, Ringo Deathstarr plays too loud,  Daedelus is a lunatic when behind his sampler, and an absurdly nice person when not, and I think Pitchfork sent helicopters to follow James Blake AND

this is what the band Zorch feels like:

All photos by Phil Higson, who has more images and impression at his website.

t.

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