Saturday, September 29, 2012

bye bye blogspot!

Audiofemme has moved.
We want to bring you even more content in a much prettier package.
Please check us out!

You can still follow us on twitter @audiofemme
& like us on facebook!
Thanks for your support.
XOXO, Annie & Lindsey

Monday, May 7, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: Zammuto w/ Lymbyc Systym

It must be difficult to emerge from the shadow of a ten-year-long, critically acclaimed project as prolific as The Books. Few solo projects reach the heights of the acts that begot them, and in Nick Zammuto's case, the hope here is that his new output – creatively titled “Zammuto” - will somehow be comparable to one of the most innovative and beloved projects in experimental pop and sound collage in the last decade. It would be nice if it was possible to separate the two acts and evaluate this new venture on its own individual terms, but the reality is that there's probably no one who will write about Zammuto (the band) without mentioning Zammuto (the musician's) resume, and in this case especially, it's extremely difficult to avoid.

Nick Zammuto has a lot going for his first self-titled album. Some of the elements and ideas that made The Books' recordings so compelling make appearances here from time to time - the curated snippets of bizarre audio from anonymous sources, carefully constructed but sometimes chaotic sounding progression, digitally processed vocals, exacting wit and clever wordplay. There are a few songs (“Too Late Topologize” “Harlequin” “The Shape Of Things To Come”) which would be right at home on any Books record, and then there are those that would somehow not. These contain a kind of straight-forwardness that obliterates the mystery, beauty, precision, and whimsy that made The Books what it is. At best, the indignant, driving undertones of “F U C-3PO” improve on the ambiguity that marked Zammuto's prior work (though what he has against beloved the Star Wars character is not made apparent). But at its most cloying, the jam-band tendencies of “Groan Man, Don't Cry” might make some Books fans want to groan and cry, and the disembodied female androids “rapping” through the entirety of “Zebra Butt” seem, well, asinine. Overall, however, the record is a triumphant experiment in the same spirited vein as the music Zammuto made as one half of The Books, yet sets itself apart just enough for these explorations and new additions to remain interesting (stream it below via the band's soundcloud).

Nick Zammuto met Paul de Jong in 1999 as tenants in the same New York City apartment building, but it wasn't until six years and two and half albums later that they finally started touring, screening unique and often hilarious video collages of found material during the shows. For Zammuto, Nick's wasted no time in assembling a group of considerably talented band members and embarking on a proper tour, borrowing some elements from his former musical project but creating something that is wholly different. That tour culminated at Glasslands last Monday, with Lymbyc Systym opening.

Lymbyc Systym is a two piece that sounds like a band five times its size. Hailing from Tempe, Arizona (but now based in Brooklyn), brothers Jared and Michael Bell make earnest, transcendent post rock. Their intricate compositions are thought out to the most minute detail and replicated live with stunning exactness. Having not released an album since 2009, this particular set featured plenty of new material, much of it tinged R&B beats and influences. Though there's very little to see onstage – Jared hunches over some electronic equipment, while Michael drums beneath a swath of dark curls – the sounds they make take on a breathing, seething life of their own, instantly occupying every inch of space from floor to ceiling. While the nostalgic undertones are at some points crushing, there is no room for pretentiousness and it never really has a chance to rear its head. For having played with so many huge names in indie rock, the pair have remained humble, and that nonchalance somehow makes their music seem that much more potent. They were joined on stage for a few songs by a friend with a violin, the strings adding sweetness and drama in just the right amounts.

When Zammuto took the stage it was not Nick as soloist, but Zammuto as a full band, joined by brother Mikey on bass, Sean Dixon on drums, and Gene Back (who had also played intermittently with The Books) on keys and additional guitars. Like an actual extension of the mood introduced by album's first track (entitled “Yay”) there was a collective, ecstatic enthusiasm so apparent it could have been a fifth band member. The sense that it gave me was so different from having seen The Books; whereas The Books wanted to tickle at thought processes, Zammuto's live show is all about the act of playing. Nick in particular seems so motivated by desire to expand on a live sound and share it with anyone willing to bear witness that it's hard not to respect - though it is slightly ironic when you consider that he manufactures most of these sounds by himself, holed up in a shed behind the eco-house which he inhabits with his wife and children in the sprawling countryside of rural Vermont.

In terms of visual stimuli, Zammuto also had something to offer, though the projections here were less choreographed and a bit more random that the video pairings I'd seen at Books shows. A bit more akin to Found Footage Fest or Everything is Terrible, the first projection was a chopped and screwed how-to for finger skateboarding, while another took stock photos of actors “experiencing” back pains, headaches, and otherwise twisting their faces and contorting their bodies into unpleasant shapes. But the most intriguing video was one that actually formed a song – for “The Greatest Autoharp Solo of All Time”, Zammuto took the sights and sounds of a Bob Bowers-led instructional video for the autoharp player, editing the song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” until it was all but unrecognizable. The band played alongside the video, drawing on its unique rhythms to form a cohesive, moving piece with just a hint of a clever smirk.

The only real low-point of the show, for me, was a crunchy version of Paul Simon's “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” that fell flat mostly because it lacked imagination and also because in Paul Simon's oeuvre “50 Ways” has got to be one of the weakest, most trite tunes.

The encore of Zammuto's set was the big payoff for fans expecting another Books show. In attempting to present “Zebra Butt” live, there had been some unexplained technical difficulties. Nick had promised to come back to it, even offering to hook up another computer that supposedly would have had the necessary files. For whatever reason, these plans were to no avail and resulted in one of the most awkward interstices between set and encore I've ever observed. But out of that wreckage came the first twangs of “Smells Like Content”, the seminal philosophical love-letter to living from 2005's Lost And Safe. I've been trying to decide whether this was a cheap shot – if picking out the most instantly recognizable and moving track that you've built your musical career on as an encore to one of your new band's first shows is somehow a weak move. Would I have felt more gratified if he'd chosen a “deep cut” as opposed to a “hit”? Did I feel slightly pandered to, being reminded in such an obvious way of one of the greatest contributions The Books made to independent music? Yes, but also no.

There's this beautiful and sort of tragically funny truism that appears as a sound-byte at the end of the recorded version of “Smells Like Content” (Expectation leads to disappointment. If you don't expect something big, huge, and exciting.... usually uhhhh... I don't know... you're just not as... yeah) and though Zammuto didn't roll the clip at the end of playing the song, its unforgettable to anyone who's listened to that song as much as I have. Thinking of it served almost as a caution not to expect Books-caliber output from only half of the band, that it would by its nature be the same in some ways, different in others, and there was simply no reason to obsess over the particulars when you should just try to enjoy it. While the high-minded creativity that propelled The Books is present in some aspects of this project and absent in others, Zammuto (as a band) is a new iteration in that direction. Even if in the end Zammuto doesn't feel as wholly imagined as its predecessor (because one half of it is literally missing), there's plenty of merit and beauty in the music that Nick Zammuto is still more than willing to create. And whether its fair or not to evaluate this album against The Books' releases will stop being a question the longer he continues to produce work and come into his own, shedding those expectations and freeing himself for further sonic exploration.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: Here We Go Magic w/ Glass Ghost

Here We Go Magic are crowd pleasers. When they released the video for “Make Up Your Mind” (in which a variety of women suffer seizures instigated by frontman Luke Temple's mystical musical powers), they unwittingly unleashed a maelstrom of indignation from a some overly sensitive viewers. Rather than embrace the controversy or use the subtle sexual undertones (some YouTube commenters noted that the “seizures” were rather orgasmic) to generate buzz for their third album, A Different Ship, out May 8th on Secretly Canadian, they shelved the video entirely. This decision seems baffling for a band whose video projects often skew a bit bizarre and push some boundaries, but the choice was made to avoid any conflict that might take attention away from the music. That music was front and center on Thursday when the band played its sold-out record release party at The Knitting Factory. And once again, their crowd-pleasing nature came into play, with a nicely rendered set that showcased the newest album and offered surprising takes on old favorites.

Openers Glass Ghost, a Brooklyn-based band who have cultivated a creative friendship with Temple, were a nice compliment to the set. Offering a contemplative batch of eerily unspooling tunes, Eliot Krimsky's otherworldly falsetto swirled through Mike Johnson's ephemeral synths and diffused beats, then over an unusually reverent audience. The power of Glass Ghost lies in moody disconnect, which they achieve through an elevated sense of fragility and a slightly autistic manner of delivery. Both players were stoic to the point of coming off as robotic, interacting with the audience and each other minimally, while retro video projections flashed on the screen behind them. Though the subdued nature of the set was unusual for an opening band, whose typical responsibility is revving up an audience for the headliners, this wasn't necessarily a detractor. As testament to how powerful ambivalence and alienation can be, the tragically gorgeous “Like A Diamond” served a perfect thesis statement, and somehow television talk-show host Marc Summers (of all people) became the poster child for that lost feeling.

Marc Summers is famously known as the wise-cracking host of Nickelodeon's Double Dare, which ran from the mid-eighties into the early nineties and pitted kid contestants against the likes of a giant ice cream sundae and some water balloons filled with tomato sauce; if they failed to answer trivia questions correctly they had to take a “Physical Challenge,” the end result of which often involved getting covered in some sort of goo. There were a bunch of spin-offs, including “Super Sloppy” and “Family” editions of Double Dare, which caused my parents to buy a second television when I threw a fit because the evening news they wanted to watch aired at the same time. Summers also hosted What Would You Do? in which guests were regularly doused with slime.

What does this have to do with Glass Ghost? Well, the irony in the fact that Summers spent the better part of his adulthood getting slimed and sliming others is that he suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, a mental illness which can manifest itself in a frantic need to stay immaculately clean. That dichotomy – the disjointed sensation of wanting to participate, be involved, stay there, to feel versus the failure to do so despite having these emotions and knowing what is normal, even doing what is normal but remaining out of place – is at the crux of it of Glass Ghost's music, a lá seminal Radiohead track “Fake Plastic Trees”. So when the projections shifted to a distorted video recording of Double Dare (including many shots of Marc Summers grinning through his despair) it brought not just a wave of nostalgia, but also served as a peculiar illustration of a much deeper theme.

the beguiling Jen Turner
For all the removed grandeur of Glass Ghost's set, Here We Go Magic brought just as much intensity to the stage, though it was of a different variety. Backed by bandmates Jen Turner (bass & keyboards), Michael Bloch (guitar), and Peter Hale (drums), Temple's enigmatic voice soared through renditions of “How Do I Know” “Hard To Be Close” and old favorites like “Fangela” and “Casual”. The new record was produced by Radiohead's Nigel Godrich, who became interested in the band after seeing them play at Glastonbury. For most of the tracks Godrich employed a live recording technique with few digital flourishes meant to enhance but not perfect the recordings. It's hard to say whether that emphasis came from his initial, inspiring exposure to the band, or if the in-the-moment improvisational methods utilized in the studio have infused their latest performances with a newfound go-for-broke energy. But something magical indeed happens when the band is playing together as a cohesive whole.

It was not uncommon to see the band extend normally unassuming musical breaks into spiraling, extravagant jam sessions more apropos of arena rock bands, or hair metal even. But instead of cock rock, the audience was treated to the plaintive, dreamy “Over The Ocean” rendered epically, in all its shimmering glory. Even if it seems overwrought for more a genre of pop that is typically more humble, make no mistake: this is exactly how these songs are meant to be experienced, with all their dormant power front-and-center. It's a bold move in these times; as the influence of technology on indie pop becomes more and more ubiquitous, it's become increasingly uncommon to see a band who can actually rock out but that's exactly what Here We Go Magic do, and do well. Though Temple started this project as a solo one, he's found some tremendously talented players whose skill is so assured that they make each other look even better. And their confidence in the new material truly gives these tunes a worthy showcase. So maybe they don't need a gimmick or a controversy to propel their own hype. No one at the show went into seismic convulsions, but the crowd was very, very pleased indeed.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: The Horrors, live at MHOW

Given the infrequency with which these guys tour, I had no idea what exactly to expect from them as a live act. I got into Primary Colours when it came out in 2009, because of the song "Three Decades", which starts out seeming like disjointed a-harmonious chaos, and becomes, at the exact moment you feel you're going to lose your mind, melodious and really quite beautiful. It's like being handed a glass of cold water when you didn't even know you needed it.

To me, they are what Joy Division would have become had Ian Curtis decided not to give the ghost up. However, after I listened to more, I realized I like them for one pretty obvious reason: if all the best aspects of shoegaze and 80's new wave were to have a love child, it would be the Horrors. You could say that the former progressed naturally out of the latter, but that doesn't necessarily mean the two sound good together.

The Horrors do pull it off though, pretty brilliantly. Playing into their new-wave aesthetic, they cultivate a louder-than-life persona on stage, with Faris Badwan's freakishly tall frame in the forefront, towering over the audience, his faced obscured by a mop of disheveled hair. The rock star ethos he works pretty hard to achieve (he prefaces each song with a slur of incoherent mumblings, for example) is tempered by the spacier lo-fi, effect of all the distortion and synth they employ. This contrast alone, adds a compelling ingredient to what could otherwise be thought of as a pretty formulaic recipe.

Anyway, I'm happy to say that their songs sound as good live as they do on their albums--which I find is often a conventional indicator of any band's ability to walk the talk.

They opened with "I Can See Through You"--an angry, incredibly loud love song, that combines post-punk lead guitar lines with various iconic, 80's-esque synthy arpeggios (think "Bizarre Love Triangle").  The evening progressed from there, with most of the work off their newest album Skying including "Still Life", which I think is the track that best (and perhaps singularly) captures the above-described conceit with which they began making albums, as well as "You Said", which to me, points to where they may be venturing next: a bigger, more ethereal and instrumentally complex sound that still maintains its basic foundations as music that induces profound nostalgia. For what? Who knows. Most of us--including these guys-- weren't around then...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

SXSW: In Annie's opinion...

Some things change, and some things stay the same:

One remarkable aspect of SXSW is, of course, the unbridled havoc it wreaks on any sense of equilibrium with which you may have arrived in Austin. As much as you feel compelled to do so, trying to plan any sort of agenda in advance feels intractably challenging. Somehow though, when you’re finally in it, you manage to create discreet experiences in the throes of what often feels like a timeless, endless loop of days and nights, stages and voices and bright flashing lights. Unsurprisingly, it’s the point at which you acquiesce to the cacophony of it all that things begin to come together. Trends become noticeable, for example.

One of those trends that I ran into repeatedly, and one I’ve been trying desperately to wrap my brain around and come up with something cohesive to say about, is the integration of prepared (e.g electronic) music that, for instance, comes out of a box or mobile device, with live music that comes out of instruments that have existed for centuries. Most of the more notable contemporary artists whom I watched play at SXSW use prepared music (beats, samples, their own previously recorded voices) as an instrument onto itself, whether they are composing it all on stage and looping it over live music, or playing along concurrently with electronic music they’ve already created, or creating more improvised moments by extemporaneously feeding the sounds their instruments make through any handful of new and crazy effects.

To put it more simply: it seems that the line between let’s say, indie rock and experimental electronic music is becoming increasingly more obfuscated by things like rapidly-evolving new technology. However, there's something else to it; When I watched folks like Washed Out perform--while yes, they utilize cutting edge music recording technology on stage as as a band member in and of itself (like when Ernest Greene stepped up to start singing, he waved his Ipad at the audience in silent acknowledgement of that of which I speak),  I also sensed an abiding evocation of decades-old ideas (heralded by the likes of Roxy Music and the Talking Heads, to name just a few) about the boundaries live music can test and trample altogether.

 Washed Out perform "New Theory"

Live music used to mean going to see a group of people coming together to showcase their technical proficiency, if not virtuosity, and play for you the songs you love listening to on albums at home (hopefully, if the band is at all decent). These days, you can find many of those people behind the counter at Guitar Center ready to talk your ear off about their favorite Jimmy Page riff. 

But things are changing dramatically. And what it all seems to indicate and reveal, is that live music has taken an almost defiant step away from what it has formerly endeavored to achieve--primarily the communication of specific and nameable talents belonging to individual band members--and toward something entirely new, possessed of a markedly different morphology that usually includes a glowing Apple logo. I haven't quite been able to put my finger on the pulse of this transformation, but I know that it's due to the convergence of the following: The rise of Apple and thus the proliferation of increasingly advanced music editing software, the disintegration of the record industry, and a shift in musical zeitgeist toward a movement that has been put on hold since the late 70's and 80's.

I'm not saying it isn't exciting to watch musical virtuosity on display. Now though, watching live music--at least in this new iteration I'm describing (one that seems to be pervading so many different genres, rather than continuously spawning new subcategories of electronica as it did in the past) --is compelling due to a myriad of other performative aspects besides the technical expertise of whomever is playing. 

Someone like Shigeto is a perfect example of this. While he's a great drummer in his own right, it's not his musicality that exhilarates those who watch him, nor is it necessarily the electronic components of his sets, which are also quite good. What's amazing about him, is the way in which he jumps back and forth between the electronic and live aspects of his work, juxtaposing these two different (potentially opposing) styles of music. And he toys with the opposition with brilliant fluidity, at times underscoring tensions between the two and at other times resolving it or showing how each can coexist with the other, all the while exhibiting to the audience the process he uses to compose his music. It's almost like watching a chef prepare a meal on cooking show.

Shigeto, live on Drums and Turntables, SXSW 2012
Lindsey has a great video of this performance, methinks

Anyway, so much more can be said, but for the sake of brevity I'll leave you, for now (over the next few days I'll be posting on my top ten shows from SXSW, the content of which will extrapolate further on all of this), with a video of Matthew Dear performing "Headcage", which I think encapsulates perfectly the ideas I'm attempting to formulate. This is a band whose sound hinges on the use of new recording and editing technology. However, there is no absence of talented musicians on stage here. This stuff is technically considered electronic music, but I think that kind of categorical imperative truly sells it short. Enjoy please!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Taking a Look at Jesse Frohman's Photos of Kurt Cobain

Because he was a photographer and not a psychic, Jesse Frohman had no way of knowing that his now-iconic pictures of grunge idol Kurt Cobain would be some of the last ever shot. But judging by the Nirvana frontman's erratic behavior both leading up to and during the session, originally commissioned as a feature for the Sunday Observer, it wasn't hard to see Cobain's demise on the horizon. By the time Frohman met Cobain in November 1993, he'd overdosed once and been through several stints in rehab. He famously appeared for the shoot three hours late, strung out, and introduced himself to the photographer by asking for a bucket he could puke in.

The Morrison Hotel Gallery in Soho is showing the series of photographs for the first time as a collection. They were shot over the course of just that one meeting, in the New York City hotel where Nirvana was staying when they played a show at Roseland Ballroom. There are some live shots from the show that night and a few taken with Krist Novaselic and Dave Grohl as well. Most of what is on display at the Morrison are straightforward portraits of Cobain against a neutral background. He is dressed eccentrically in a tattered leopard print coat, Jackie-O style bug-eyed sunglasses, and an aviator cap, with a shabby tee and jeans underneath. Chipping red nailpolish adorns his fingertips; in some pictures he is seen with a cigarette, smoke trickling from his mouth, in others he swigs a bottle of Evian as though it were Jack Daniels. The images are nothing if not captivating, in spite of (and perhaps moreso?) their repetitive quality when presented side-by-side, on a scale literally larger-than-life.

© Jesse Frohman/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

© Jesse Frohman/
courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery
As a whole, it's hard to tell how much of these photos represent a Kurt that is real but coming unhinged, and how much is Cobain simply playing the part of “rock star” - an image that he felt was forced upon him in the wake of Nirvana's insane successes. By the time these photos were taken, Kurt had publicly expressed his disdain for the media, and in many ways, his flagrant disregard for Frohman's schedule, paired with his apathetic demeanor appearing in one shot to the next, is indicative of that. While Frohman has said that during the shoot Cobain was easily molded into poses and could be very dramatic in his gestures, he refused to remove the trademark white-framed sunglasses, adding another layer of mystery and alienation from the viewer. Interestingly enough, they do provide the viewer with a unique insight into the artifice of the image – you can see lighting set-ups and even the photographer himself reflected in Kurt's lenses – and while I'm sure that was not a meditated action taken by the subject, the fact remains that what we are seeing are not candid shots. They are in some regard meticulous, despite Kurt's attempt to sabotage the shoot as Frohman planned it. Very few people really knew Kurt Cobain without the media filter either building him into a God or shaking their worried heads at his drug-addled antics, and as such, these images are part of that machine. Without expressly turning his middle finger skyward for the camera, Cobain seems flippant, defiant, aware of the fact that everyone is watching. 

On the other hand, if Kurt was as strung out as all accounts (including Frohman himself) claim, and taken in context with what would transpire mere months later, it is possible that these really are images of a man with his guard down and his back against the wall. As with any life ended in suicide, it's natural to look back to that person's actions leading up to their demise and pick each moment apart to try to discern just what went wrong. Kurt Cobain had everything, and the eyes of the world were upon him. While that pressure has been cited as a key factor in his coming unhinged, there's really no way to know why someone so talented and vital – or why anyone, really – would put a shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger as if that wouldn't have an impact on his legacy or the world at large. It's possible that suicide was the furthest thing from his mind in November when Frohman and Cobain crossed paths, a camera between them. But it doesn't really matter; at that point, Kurt Cobain's fate as one of the most iconic musicians in rock-n-roll history was already cemented, with or without his indelible image burned into silver emulsion.

Kurt Cobain: Photographs by Jesse Frohman is on exhibit at The Morrison Hotel Gallery, 124 Prince Street, NYC through April 23rd.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Hole's Eric Erlandson Talks "Letters To Kurt"

There is one question that every music connoisseur dreads, and though it is often innocently asked, can be astoundingly difficult to answer. It might happen at a party or an intimate dinner gathering, on a first date, or on the fiftieth. But inevitably, as a means of qualifying your musical tastes, future, past, or present, it's perfectly natural for a friend or acquaintance or romantic interest to casually wonder “What's your favorite band?”

For some, the question doesn't invoke a desperate clamor or sheepish backstory; the answer is permanent and enduring and needs no defense whatsoever. For others, such as myself, it can be a bit more tricky. It's not that I'd deny my sonic proclivities, but my musical obsessions have been known to shift from one moment to the next. That doesn't necessarily make my love for any of these acts less deep, but I do end up with a quite a long list of sometimes obscure material that sort of leaves the original query unanswered.

Throughout most of my life, I've sort of maintained a Top Three essential acts that I feel provide a definite framework from which most of my musical interests can be gleaned; with these, I try not to mention anything too obscure or recent so as not to alienate anyone or pigeonhole myself. Typically, one or two of these might rotate, but for the last several years my go-tos have included Caribou and Animal Collective, which I don't think are really much of a stretch in terms of their similarities to one another, and pretty representative of the sort of genres I tend to explore nowadays.

And then there's my longtime, all time, most favorite band ever, which isn't like either of the others. As my interests in music have evolved, there's one constant which so completely informs so many aspects of my personality and my past that it will never be ousted by any other act, no matter how experimental, challenging, or prolific they seem at the time. That band is Hole.

Now, I am fully aware that Hole's early and mid-nineties contemporaries offered far more in terms of innovation and contribution to the history of what was to become alternative rock, a genre that I hold responsible for my eventual introduction into independent music. But I look to their presence in that movement as a whole to act as a sort of stand-in for so much of what was important to me at that time. They existed at the confluence of grunge and riotgrrl, two forces that offered me a precise blueprint for the way I would form my opinions, express my emotions, and live my life from that time forward; the center of the wheel from which all spokes of my being would radiate. If you think I'm exaggerating, I assure you, I am not. Even my aesthetics as a young artistic hopeful were indelibly shaped by what these bands, and Hole in particular, offered to the world at large.

She warned me it would be this way; I remember the specific moment I heard Courtney's gravelly premonition: “Someday you will ache like I ache.” I saw her black-and-white heartbreak over the loss of husband and rock idol Kurt Cobain, writhing in crumpled bedsheets each time MTV aired the video that accompanied “Dollparts”. My bad skin thankfully wouldn't last for the rest of my life, but it ensured I'd never be the prom queen on the cover of Live Through This, an album so blistering and beautiful it felt like the truest thing in my life.

I felt a kinship to Courtney Love, an ugly-ish girl obsessed with vanity and needing to be heard, to be appreciated, to be loved, and able to see the loveliness lurking in hidden, sometimes unattractive places. I watched her trashy glamour transform into Celebrity Skin, a glittering piece of pop-rock perfection with just a bit of a bitter underside. It arrived in an era where girls my age were pimped for Total Request Live, their bare bellies and pouty lips so far from anything I was interested in being or seeing, their horrible songs the last thing I wanted to hear. Instead I pumped “Awful” with a knowing smirk, in on the joke even if no one else laughed with me. Courtney's impeccable aestheticism in film, music, literature and fashion felt specifically curated for me alone, and it was with her recommendations that I explored cultural boundaries not typically tested by other girls my age.

But I don't often go into these lurid details when someone asks about my favorite band, for it seems too detailed an explanation. If I align myself with what Courtney once was, I feel I have to amend it these days; she's become a sad, drug-addled train wreck incapable of her former brilliance as a lyricist, performer, or songwriter, her tastes questionable though at one time I saw her stamp of approval as essential. And I've grown out of the need for an idol, especially when that idol has grown into a joke.

One of my biggest regrets is never getting to see the band perform live, never standing before Courtney with her leg propped on the monitors, her skirt hiked up and her guitar swinging brazenly. Her solo releases were kind of pathetic, and last year when she revived the Hole moniker as a desperate means of selling records and concert tickets I only briefly contemplated buying in. It would simply not be the same without Eric Erlandson's prolific guitar or Patty Schemel's thunderous drumming, and though she wasn't an original member, Melissa Auf der Maur's angelic backup a deft bass seemed essential to the equation as well.

On the eighteenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, I realized how truly essential these people were. Though I've made a pact with myself never to patronize evil bookselling empire Barnes & Noble, I had to make an exception that evening - Eric Erlandson was releasing his book of prose poems, Letters To Kurt, and would be joined in conversation with Melissa Auf der Mar. The discussion was warmly and expertly led by journalist Katherine Lanpher, and I was pleased as punch that Patty Schemel was also in attendance. Through the course of the evening, Erlandson fielded questions pertaining to his writing methods, the hardships he had been through both during his time in Hole and the period after they'd disbanded, and even touched on the state of American economics, politics, and music. The conversation was punctuated by both musical performances from Melissa and Eric as a duet, and readings from Letters to Kurt.

Eric opened with a shimmering banjo solo, joking that Hole had been known for their use of “traditional” instruments; his picking became more urgent and darkly tinged as Melissa introduced and began singing “My Foggy Notion”, a track from her first solo album, Auf der Mar. For later numbers, they would cover Jacques Brel's “Le Moribund” (better known as “Seasons In The Sun”) and close with The Smiths' “Paint A Vulgar Picture”, songs chosen for references that had been casually inserted into Eric's writing but also for the relevancy to the somber anniversary at hand. When Patty Schemel joined the group on stage, the three of them shared memories of the impact of Kurt's death, and Patty related a beautiful story about the first anniversary of his passing, in which Hole was on tour in Europe. A Parisian youth was waving a fanzine around desperately trying to get the band to read Kurt's interview within, and Melissa had to translate it from French. It turned out to be a blurb about how much Kurt had loved Hole, found Live Through This to be a brilliant record, and thought Patty to be an exceptional drummer.

That's the thing that made the evening (and the work presented) less salacious and more authentic than one might expect – it seems impossible, almost unreal, but these people were there, as an integral part, of music history in its making. They had a hand in writing some of the most dramatic, chaotic and prolific chapters in the story of rock music. But until now, their voices had been drowned out by the loudest, proudest widow of the bunch, who wore her pain on the sleeves of her babydoll dress. Almost two decades later, Erlandson has presented a body of prose work that attempts to approach and possibly relieve the pain that surrounded him and his band, and reproach the mistakes made not only by his muse, but those made by himself as well.

Which brings us to the “letters” contained in Erlandson's book. They are seething & surreal, hallucinatory free-associations densely packed with metaphor and memory, lifting references from pop culture and self-help manifestos, as incantatory as spells that threaten to rouse old ghosts. He delivered these pieces with a sarcastic snarl, but in reading each short chapter it's apparent that anger is not the only emotion he is attempting to excise and examine – there is suffering, empathy, sadness, love, wonder, admiration, envy, bitterness – each present in varying hues to different degrees. They feel like relics from another era, and it's true that not everyone will grasp each inside joke or obscure reference, but that is hardly the point.

Erlandson was handed, by his own admission, two things by Courtney – one that would kill him and one that would save him. The latter refers to his own dark experimentations with drugs, and the former to the Buddhist path he has followed since becoming clean and staying sober. More than anything, Letters To Kurt presents us with a portrait not of the titular muse but of Erlandson himself and the journey he has been on in the aftermath of rock stardom. The book is evidence of whatever peace he has reluctantly reached, snapshots taken from the path he is still on as a means of coming to terms with the past and meeting the future head-on. He's finally stepped into the spotlight, however reluctantly, and raised his voice, and the results are captivating.

Like Erlandson, Auf der Mar and Schemel have moved on from Hole but have respects to pay to this period of their lives; Schemel documentary Hit So Hard opens in New York on April 13th, comprised mostly of material shot while touring in the mid-late nineties, and Auf der Mar has recorded a new solo record and is heavily involved in the renovation and reopening of arts and performance space Basilica Hudson in Hudson, NY.

For all the time I spent idolizing Courtney Love, attempting to justify her antics to her detractors and to myself, emulating her bravado and feeling her pain as though it were my own, I realized on this night that so much of what really and truly resonated with me was not her histrionics, but the music itself. That truth had been obscured by her blazing star, and only now, long after that comet trail has faded into oblivion, I was able to see the earnest and authentic people responsible for the true magic which still captivates me to this day. While the front-woman who led them to fame and ultimately destroyed the band was trying to be larger than life, there were always three other band members with their feet on the ground, diligently playing with skill and grace, waiting for a time when their own brilliance would become apparent. I can no longer deny their place in my own journey, but I can thank them for shaping me, and I can share in the pride of their survivals and successes.

You can download my full recording of the conversation HERE.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: Keep Shelly In Athens w/ Jonquil

Keep Shelly In Athens is the awkward appellation of a Grecian duo who value an air of mystery. Named for the neighborhood in Athens in which they live – not a captive friend or lover – vocalist Sarah P and producer RΠЯ have only released a few atmospheric, Balaeric-tinged EPs and handful of remixes made available on soundcloud, but they've garnered a huge amount of interest and buzz on the internet and beyond. Their clever production incorporates occasionally hectic, glitchy breaks into otherwise smooth, surreal grooves with dark undertones. Breathy feminine vocals double back over intricate synths and chopped guitar riffs to create haunting textures, and the mesh of styles and tempos comfortably keeps the band from falling too squarely into any category. Keep Shelly has big plans to release a full length sometime this year, and with all the intrigue they've generated abroad are striking out on one of their first US tours, which opened Monday night at Glasslands.

I arrived at the venue a few songs into opening act Jonquil's set and was surprised to see Hugo Manuel at the helm, backed by a full band. If last summer proved anything it's that I'm a huge fan of Manuel's solo project, Chad Valley. Under that moniker, he's released two solid EPs chock full of beachy beats as well as a handful of remixes that in many cases improve the original track by leaps and bounds, all of it in heavy rotation in my iTunes for months and months out of last year. So I'm not quite sure how I missed the fact that he was also the lead singer in a full band. And a good one at that – Jonquil plays an immediate, earnest brand of indie pop tinged with the same tropical elements that make Chad Valley's production so infectious. In Manuel's solo work, he uses his voice more as an overarching melodic element, submerging it under echoic or fuzzy effects, dropping it deep into his rhythmic fray. In Jonquil, he lets it soar to its fullest expressive potential, sliding effortlessly into falsetto and back again into its urgent depths, brilliantly complemented by exuberant brass notes from dual trumpets. My parents watch pretty much every vocal competition show on television (though personally I think someone should combine all of these into one show, creatively titled So You Think America Has a Talented Idol Voice With The Stars?) and having seen a few of these by osmosis while visiting I found myself thinking Manuel would totally own any of the contestants that usually get picked for such drivel. Luckily, he's far more focused on his own creative output. Also, he's British, so he might be disqualified off the bat.

Keep Shelly In Athens began their set with guitarist Stefano, drummer Angelo, and hooded beatsmith RΠЯ alone on stage. Soft projections behind the band featured what looked like falling leaves, or something caught in a drift – appropriate, given the mood set by their shoegazey instrumental take on some of their remix material. Before long, they were joined on stage by tiny, spritely vocalist Sarah P, whose hair fell in soft waves over her face. Considering the subtle ebbs and flows of their dreamy releases, their live sound was much more plugged in than I'd expected it to be, creating a moodier atmosphere than is present in their recorded material. It was like being sucked into a whirlpool in all the best ways. And at the bottom of this whirlpool, a glassy-eyed mermaid awaited, cooing and sucking me deeper into the abyss. In this hallucinatory equation, that mermaid was Sarah P, whose voice sparked and burned with with swirling sensuality, while Angelo's deft drumming and Stefano's hazy guitar work took turns in the spotlight. Through it all, the mysterious man known as RΠЯ acted as maestro, confidently holding it together with connecting loops, samples, and synths.

For a band who has rarely toured the US and yet garnered so much buzz, one would think a show in Brooklyn at an impeccable venue would have been packed to the rafters (or, in the case of Glasslands, to the tissue paper clouds). The fact that they played on a Monday might be partially to blame for the surprisingly sub-par attendance, not to mention there were a handful of competing acts booked the same evening (SBTRKT, for instance, played just around the corner at Music Hall of Williamsburg). Still, Keep Shelly's live shows are a great way for such a new band to experiment sonically and cut their teeth on instrumental techniques. It's exciting to see those wheels turning and to imagine how they'll incorporate what works into their debut release. Even with the current level of talent and innovation that this band presents, it's hard to imagine their shows being ignored for very long.

My only caveat with the performance was the closing number, a cover of The Jesus & Mary Chain's seminal tune “Just Like Honey”. They'd posted their rendition on soundcloud not too long ago, so it wasn't any surprise that it made the setlist, though I found it a rather disappointing addition. This song is well beloved by pretty much anyone and everyone you know that gives any kind of shit about music, making it kind of obvious in terms of choice for cover. It's also been given a splendid re-work by Alela Diane side-project Headless Heroes. But KSIA don't change it up enough to make it interesting, and Sarah's wilting vocal delivery doesn't demand any extra attention. After performing such a strong set of original material, no one was about to get even remotely excited for such glaring retread; in fact, because they played the opening verses rather quietly, you could hear the audience talking amongst themselves as if the band had already finished playing. If I could make a career of it, I would do nothing but advise indie bands on which songs they should cover. Even if this job paid but a paltry sum, it would be well worth it in terms of bestowing the world (and myself) with rad remakes of awesome songs. Since the best I can do in the meantime is write show reviews on this blog, I've here compiled a short list of songs that Keep Shelly In Athens should consider as replacement for “Just Like Honey”, should any of the band's members stumble across it.

  1. “Passenger” - The Deftones: This might seem off-the-wall and distastefully nu-metal. But in the wash of horrible rap-metal bands to emerge from the mid-nineties, I will stand by both Around The Fur and White Pony as bastions of technical wizardry, killer vocal work, conceptual originality and oddball sexiness. And you know what? These tracks actually stand the test of time, particularly this gender-bending, possibly bi-curious duet between Chino Moreno and Tool's Maynard Keenan, a tribute to unmentionable vehicular acts. Keep Shelly In Athens' touring drummer, Angelo, would have a heyday with this one; his rapid-fire staccato made me look over to the friend whom I attended the show with and say “Shut up and drive.”
  2. “Glory Box” - Portishead: This is probably the obvious Portishead jam to cover. But no one ever covers Portishead, though I can see why. Beth Gibbon's voice is kind of untouchable. However, Sarah P's often wry vocal delivery is a good match for pretty much any track in Portishead's oeuvre, and it's no challenge to draw parallels between the two acts. They could punch up the production to give the track an original twist and better suit their own style.
  3. “#1 Crush” - Garbage: I have this fantasy that one day a bunch of chillwave bands will re-work the soundtrack to Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet song for song. Even that lame Everclear song.
  4. “You Oughta Know” - Alanis Morissette: In a rare moment, I was listening to the actual radio while actually driving an actual car, and this song came on. While I had memorized all the words to it long, long ago, that was at a point in my young life where I really had no concept of how embarrassingly vehement the lyrical content of this song truly is. I had not had any lovers at that point in my life and had therefore not been scorned by any lovers, so while I played my Alanis cassette pretty damn often, I really had no way of knowing what she was getting at, even if I wasn't quite so naïve as to not be aware of what going down on someone in a theater entailed. Now I can say I've experienced my fair share of relationships, but none that have ended so badly as the one that prompted Ms. Morissette to air Dave Coulier's dirty laundry at the top of the pops. Anyway, since hearing this song again, still alive and well on whatever fm frequency I was tuned into that random day, I've been obsessed with the idea of hearing some heartbroken version to replace the irate one we're all so familiar with. Sarah P. could easily deliver a rendition with equal parts snarl and sadness that would have blown the socks off anyone listening.
  5. any other Jesus & Mary Chain song not prominently featured in a Sofia Coppola movie

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Baby's First SXSW: Saturday

Holing up in a bungalow down the street from a yuppie mall had its decided advantages. There was a pool (though it was a bit chilly for swiming, we stuck our sore, swollen feet in more than a few evenings) a decent amount of peace & quiet, a sleepy looking orange cat who was feral but friendly enough to come say hello in the mornings, and proximity to Waterloo Records, where Boise dream pop darlings Youth Lagoon played to packed parking lot. The ephemeral tracks on debut album Year of Hibernation were recorded by 22-year-old Trevor Powers, who on stage hunches over a keyboard and wails earnestly into a microphone, while friends from the bands he's played in his whole life back him up. Youth Lagoon have played a few NYC shows to much acclaim but I'd been hesitant to check them out, worried that all the bleary wonder of Hibernation would would dissipate, eroded by the boys' precociousness, but I'm happy to say that it was in no way a detriment. While Hibernation is imbued with a huge but lonely sound, it doesn't suffer at all in a live setting as I had feared it would. In fact, their faithful renditions and impassioned delivery were a great reminder of what makes Youth Lagoon's slow-building, languid anthems so fresh and immediate. Maybe all my misgivings were indicative of my disdain for growing older (or feeling older, really), and let's be real – in New York, I'd probably be surrounded by college undergrads still suffering from acne. Instead, I had the unusual pleasure of being encircled by a diverse audience that even included families with children, illustrating Youth Lagoon's wide appeal and accessibility. It was a lovely afternoon treat, to be sure.

I headed downtown for the Village Voice showcase at Red Eyed Fly, a bar setup I was now becoming familiar with for its typical Austinness – divey hunting-lodge interior, dusty patio with scraggly trees, cheap Lone Star tallboys. Outside, L.A.-based babes Bleached were setting up. Last October they'd taken CMJ by storm but I hadn't yet had the pleasure of taking in their fiery, in-your-face garage rock. They blazed through a rollicking set, slaying hearts and eardrums. Fronted by sisters Jessica and Jenn Calvin, Bleached fully satisfies all my riot grrl leanings of years past – they play fun, fast, and loose, in a nonchalantly sexy kind of way, snaring you with their trashed-up brand of eye candy but then proceeding to melt faces.

After a few songs I moseyed inside to see Pyschic Ills. The band's 2011 release on Sacred Bones, Hazed Dream, sees the band's culmination as blues-infused stoned-out psych droners. Before a backdrop of thick, raggedy velvet curtains, Brandon Davis' sprawling keys, and the thudding bass of gothy-romantic Elizabeth Hart, backed the heavily glazed drawl and meandering guitarwork of Tres Warren, clad in grungy denim. By now I was convinced that everything is just louder in Texas. Psychic Ills' normally mellow vibe was here amped up high enough to blast through concrete, though that wasn't a huge loss. The highlight for me was sexy slow-burner “I'll Follow You Through The Floor”, which got treated with a little extra jamming out. Between Bleached and Psychic Ills it was great to get a healthy dose of rock-n-roll from some bands with a more traditional set-up, since it seemed that this year's acts were largely favoring tables of electronics to actual instruments.

Class Actress also played the showcase, and falls squarely into the former category. While they did have a drummer instead of a machine that played drum sounds, the line-up still hinges on the guy-with-gadgets/charismatic-girl-with-mic dynamic. When I'd first seen them it was just after their inception, opening for Yeasayer. In that time I would say that though their sound has not diverged much from their initial vision they've certainly come into their own. Elizabeth Harper's carefully honed stage persona is nothing short of rock star – she wore mirrored shades the whole time, flitting across the stage, shimmying before the swooning audience as if it were one of her first SXSW performances rather than, by her count, the ninth in five days. She performs as if born to do so; in watching Harper's flirtatious stage moves you could just as well be watching her do a photo shoot in a fashion magazine. This is a quality she's always possessed, but she's grown even more bold in her role not just as singer but as entertainer, never content to be relegated to a position behind the keyboard she mostly ignored throughout the set. The glamour-infused party jams from 2011's Rapprocher were incredibly well-received by the crowd; it was hard to tell if these folks had just happened onto the scene and become instant converts or if they were long-term fans seeking out the chance to dance along with their idols.

Because Saturday was not just the final day of SXSW but also St. Patrick's Day, the streets were flooded with a hoard of idiots dressed in green clothing, so I'd had enough of that scene for a while. Besides, Sun Araw and Cloudland Canyon were playing a so-unofficial-it's-practically-secret gig with some electronic drone and psych bands at the Monofonus Press compound, a crust-punk utopia four miles outside the downtown area in a remote sector of far East Austin. In a maze of salvaged vintage trailers and corrugated tin sculpture was situated a grassy stage. The trees were decorated with blown glass ornaments and rusting basketball hoops. There was an inexplicable pit of abandoned bowling balls, next to which some middle-aged hippies had spread a comfy patchwork blanket on which to mind their unwashed children. Colorful DIY merch was spread on those over-sized spools, as were a pile of free zines, one of which was entitled Cool Magic Tricks for Teens (I snapped that one up immediately). Say what you will about a scene such as this, but after unwittingly absorbing the barrage of marketing campaigns being hurled at me by every corporation with a stake in SXSW, it was nice to be in a space free of advertisements. Not to mention, I got to enjoy the sedated set offered by Cloudland Canyon, whose droning, drowned psych rock I've loved since the release of their stunning Requiems Der Natur, a compilation of the Krautrock-influenced vibes they'd explored in the early part of the decade. It had been my plan to arrive in time to catch Sun Araw's set, but I'd somehow confused the set-times and so only caught the last brilliant moments of a few of their submerged, tropicalia-laced jams.

Cloudland Canyon's furious knob-twisting resulted in a woozy wave of noise most informed by the sounds on their 2010 release Fin Eaves. The crunchy, skittering synth effects and dense, distorted guitar melodies melded thickly in the balmy air, cascading through the leafy heights of attendant elms. Up in the farthest reaches, Kip Uhlhorn's insistent moan arced through these saturated compositions, acting more as instrumental component than sonic focus. Uhlhorn's wife, Kelly, was welcome addition to the band after the departure of longtime collaborator Simon Wojan, her stoic electronic manipulations melding everything together in a terrific wave of lush squall. I was so blissed on their performance I didn't even whip out my iPhone to snap pics or capture video, as I am often wont to do; the kaleidoscopic magic of the Monofonus compound, bathed in the bubbling, staticky lull provided by Cloudland Canyon, hardly seemed the place for such obtrusive, new-fangled machinations.

A friend of mine I'd not seen in ages suggested we meet at House of Commons, a DIY showspace in a huge house on the University of Texas campus, so I eventually peeled myself from my grassy slumber and headed Northwest. The campus area is pretty revolting even with all the pledges out of town for Spring Break, although not unlike my own experience of the sprawling OSU campus in Columbus. Added to my deja vu and general disgust, the fact that this friend of mine was a no show made me want to get the hell out of there, but I figured I might as well grab some food that wasn't made in a truck (also a big mistake; I had the most desultory bahn mi I've ever eaten)so I started wandering around. I was hearing music coming from somewhere, and it didn't take so long to figure out it was coming from the back of an Urban Outfitters and the performer was none other my girl Grimes. It was obviously packed to capacity so I grabbed a chair from a nearby patio and craned my neck over the fence with a few others who had been denied at the door. She seemed to have slept in the clothes I'd seen her in last night and was still suffering from vocal strain but as I now KNOW I've mentioned before I'm in love with Claire Boucher, so it didn't matter.

Afterwards, I did poke around HoC a bit, as Cleveland's HotChaCha was playing. This is a band I've already seen far more times necessary, due to the fact that they're from Ohio and we have some mutual friends. By the time and Jovanna Batkovic and Co. had started bringing their YeahYeahYeahs-esque brand of dance punk around Columbus I was kind of over that scene, but had still admired the talented all-girl line-up for their bravado as well as their skilled playing. Unfortunately, like most things coming out of Cleveland, HotChaCha has deteriorated from their former gloried state as I remember it from my youth. In this somewhat pitiful and desperate incarnation of the band, Jovanna dramatically burned herself with cigarettes and her friend took over the mic at one point to perform an impromptu rap about hipsters. Weird times are still good times, but I'd had enough of both, so it was back to civilization for me.
I decided to do a second round Cheer Up Charlie's, where Javelin and Teengirl Fantasy were on the bill. To start, I'm not sure what Javelin were doing at SXSW this year; the showcase they'd played two years ago to the day in the exact same location made a lot more sense as that's when Javelin was really on the rise, making a name for themselves as partytime sound collagists who blend every style from disco to R&B to funk to pop. But they've since established quite a reputation for themselves and as far as I know don't have a new release coming out anytime soon. That's not to say their presence wasn't much enjoyed; their live shows are infused with the kind of energy usually seen in daycares where the charges are provided with espresso shots. Cousins George Langford and Tom van Buskirk know how to throw a party, and it's nice to see them branching out and expanding their talents as musicians (Tom had a guitar on stage, which he told the crowd he was learning to play) while staying true to their DIY junk-shop pop ethos. Shortly into the set, one of the speakers blew, but a quick change-up gave the dudes new life and new excuses to bring the noise. All the improvisational elements of Javelin's live shows were here as well, from made-up-on-spot verses to a cover of “Sabotage” that Nite Jewel tweeted was the “whitest” thing she's ever heard, possibly because she forgot that the Beastie Boys, too, are white.

Following up such an animated performance with the same gusto was no small challenge. Oberlin grads Logan Takahashi and Nick Weiss are beatsmiths of the finest order, and though their delivery of tracks from 2010's 7am was a bit more scaled back it still had the crowd dancing. Like a bottle of cheapish champagne chilled to just the right temperature, TGF popped off tracks like “Cheaters” and “Portofino” with at synths and samples at once glistening and fuzzy. The highlight of the set featured an appearance from vocalist Kilela Mizankristos who brought some serious soul to TGF's disco pop flourishes.

After the set, I headed to Longbranch Inn to check out Impose Magazine's final showcase. The venue was running behind schedule, so I walked in on the last of Xander Harris's droney electronic set. He was followed by Sapphire Slows, a Tokyo-based electronic composer who effectively hides behind a tiny set-up of gadgets and keyboards and shifts around listlessly while reproducing her submerged but polished beats by pushing a bevy of buttons. Layering laconic vocals over her sultry compositions proved an effective means of winning over the audience; I heard one guy repeatedly gushing over how stoked he was to see a female truly deliver on an electronic performance (apparently he didn't get a chance to see Grimes?). While Sapphire Slows' rhythms are moody and honed to perfection, there wasn't much to see in terms of her delivery. She remained pretty stiff, her stare a bit blank, as if trying to remember which knob to twist. It didn't help that I was surrounded by the tallest audience ever, including a dude well over 6'5” in a Kevin-Arnold style Jets jacket that Paul and Winnie could have also climbed into to camp out in. Every time I thought I'd secured a spot with some decent visibility, some overgrown Austinite would lurch in front of me. I was finally jostled into a corner between a jukebox and the edge of the stage where I could perch while Tearist delivered the most mind-blowing performance I saw all week.

Not knowing much about L.A. band Tearist prior to SXSW, my only expectations were based on a glowing review of a set a friend had caught earlier in the week. Vocalist/feral child Yasmine Kittles stood on stage, tiny in an oversized camouflaged hunting parka with her brown tresses done up in a huge top knot. She carried a large, rusting table fan onto the stage and set it to blowing, tugging her hair down around her face and removing the jacket to reveal a tiny frame clad in black lacy top, leather shorts, and ripped tights. The fan whipped her wildly around wide black eyes lined with black mascara. She howled over a sludgy backdrop of insistent beats and grinding synths produced by her cohort, William Strangeland-Menchaca, her voice deep and resonant. She writhed across the stage as if performing some ritual, lifting her arms up and sweeping them to the floor in one gracious motion. At one moment she was kneeling, at another attempting to climb the Impose-bannered curtains. Throughout the set, Kittles maintained an intensity in her faraway gaze as if the seething masses worshipping her at the foot of the stage were no present, but was also acutely aware of her surroundings, like a caged animal searching for an escape route. The visceral, almost autistic urgency in Kittles' performance is consistently anchored by the stoic presence of Strangeland-Menchaca, whose rhythms sizzle and pop. They are punctuated by Kittles' occasional swings at hammered metal box she holds in one hand and attacks with a metallic receiver she holds in the other, the sound coming out somewhere between a clashing clap and electronic thunderbolt. I obviously see a lot of live music, and I've seen performances of this nature more than a few times, but there's simply something about Tearist that is specifically mesmerizing, exciting, and electrifying. With Kittles' unabashed lack of self control, you're left to wonder what she'll do next; its as though she's suffering some intense rite of passage and every shred of intensity is both turned inward and focused on deliverance outward, like lava flowing from an erupting volcano.

Peaking Lights offered a mellowed change of pace, providing the perfect comedown. While 2009's Imaginary Falcons was a sublime piece of psych drone, it was last year's widely acclaimed 936 that broke the band to larger audiences. Hailing from Wisconsin, married couple Indra Dunis and Aaron Coyes meld together swirling, heady notes with dubby 8-tracked beats, forming a narcotic poetry. Looking ever part the opium-den goddess, Indra swayed back and forth, alternately shaking maracas, tickling the keys of a tiny vintage piano, and crooning into her mic, clothed in yellow silks depicting peacocks. Coyes was a more unassuming entity in his jean jacket, manning drum machines and samples with an occasional shake or nod of his head. The set was shortened by the closing of the bar, the show having run way past its 2am end time. While doped-up devotional “Amazing and Wonderful” was sadly missing, the set was an interesting look into what we can expect from upcoming release “Lucifer”, likely to be a bit more playful and perhaps even disco inspired, as their most recent mixtape indicates.

Though Longbranch had let the band keep playing beyond last call, once the last beats faded the lights came up and the bartender shouted, “That's it, folks... South by Southwest is over, thank fucking God!” I'm guessing it gets pretty grating on locals to have thousands of hard-drinking, heavy-partying music fans descend on your otherwise quiet, quirky little patch of dirt, even if they are stimulating your local economy and putting you on the map in the most innovative tech, music and film circles.

I had to go meet up with my posse, who were at that time witnessing the now infamous Vice party in which Trash Talk prepped their wily fans to turn A$AP Rocky's set into an all-out brawl. I waited patiently while a throng of disbelieving revelers trudged out of the venue and into the dust, likely as exhausted from all the insanity as I was. Nothing lasts forever, as they say, and though I'd missed my opportunity to see more than a handful of acts I'd really been looking forward to catching, I was walking away having seen over thirty bands in the space of four days. My phone had no remaining memory for photos or videos. I'd earned eight badges in fourSquare. Including transportation and lodging, I'd spent less that $400 bucks. And I'd be back to do it all again next year, no doubt.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Baby's First SXSW: Friday

Friday dawned with a frenetic anxiety brought on by the odd sensation that all of the fun I was having was coming to an end. From a pessimistic point of view, my time in Austin was half over. Though I'd not totally squandered the preceding days the list of bands I wanted to see still seemed a mile long. I tried to be positive, reminding myself of the two golden days that remained, and with serious fervor began to check those bands off the list.

First, the RhapsodyRocks party at Club DeVille. The line-up was great, but comprised mostly of bands I'd seen once or twice. However, the internet radio-sponsored showcase was also throwing around free beer, beer coozies, sunglasses, and cowbells, so that increased my desire to stick around.

I'd caught Tanlines most recently at last October's CMJ, where they'd debuted a lot of new material. Again, most of the set list was comprised of songs from the Brooklyn duo's recently released album Mixed Emotions, and not only are Eric Emm and Jesse Cohen growing more comfortable with these tracks, their pride in this latest work is readily apparent.

I hadn't seen Washed Out since the previous summer and, much like Tanlines, know Ernest Greene to reliably deliver a great show. It had been almost two years since I'd seen Zola Jesus, during which time she'd released her most outstanding material, so I was psyched for her contribution to the showcase. BUT I also knew that over at the Mess With Texas warehouse, Purity Ring would be gearing up for a set I couldn't miss. I'd been dying to see them since their release of two amazing singles “Ungirthed” (w/ b-side “Lofticries”) and “Belispeak” but I hadn't been able to to make it to their last NYC performances. I couldn't resist; all I could do was hope that I'd make it back in time for Zola.

Purity Ring's lyrically morbid but insanely catchy pop songs are constructed with two basic building blocks: Megan James' lilting, slightly coquetteish vocals, and the production of Corrin Roddick, who in a live setting mans a table of percussive lights and electronic devices. While I was definitely starting to see this delegation of music making responsibility repeated in band after band, Purity Ring went a few steps further with the addition of a captivating light show that took place before brightly-hued red, orange and teal curtains. The backdrops are illuminated by spotlights, turning James and Roddick into ghostly silhouettes. James is in charge of pounding an elevated bass drum at dramatic intervals, and as she does so, it lights up like a full moon. She also swings a mechanic's utility light around her head, though in a controlled rather than erratic fashion. But most impressive are the tiered lights which respond to taps and tones within the songs, framing Roddick's mixing table. They shift from red to purple to blue to yellow to orange, glowing through the crowd like psychedelic fireflies attempting to attract the trippiest mate.

While all of this was exciting to watch, the songs were the real draw. Purity Ring has kept their material close to the chest, selectively releasing only three songs thus far and not a note more. I had to know if they could keep up the seething momentum those infectious pop gems had created long enough to release an album that wasn't just filler, and I have to say that I was not disappointed. Each offering was carefully constructed, mysterious yet up-tempo enough to dance to, and not just an extension of the sound they'd already built such buzz on, but a perfect showcase for their strongest assets. There's no release date set for the Canadian duo's full-length LP, but if the SXSW performances are any indication we can expect more enigmatic lyrics layered with deceptively joyous melodies and a healthy dose of R&B-influenced bounce.

At this point, Zola Jesus was just beginning her set back at Club DeVille, but again I was faced with a dilemma. Over at the Hotel Vegas compound, BrooklynVegan was hosting a noteworthy showcase of their own, and two bands I had yet to see were slated for the afternoon – Craft Spells and Tennis.
Hotel Vegas is comprised of two small conjoined lounges, one of which is named Cafe Volstead and has some really swanky taxidermy mounted on equally swanky wallpaper. As part of the takeover, BrooklynVegan had also erected an outdoor stage, upon which snappy London-based foursome Django Django were banging out an energetic, joyful set, wearing eccentrically patterned shirts reflective of their generally quirky pop. It might have been the mixing but the live set seemed to be lacking some of the more creative percussion and synth techniques present in the band's popular singles “Waveform” and “Default”.  The songs came across as pretty nonchalant, summery pop a la The Beach Boys, whom the band has often drawn comparisons to.

Meanwhile, Inside Hotel Vegas, the dark and pounding rhythms of Trust were a stark contrast to the daylight scorching the earth outside. I'd seen Robert Alfons perform solo under his Trust moniker as opening act for Balam Acab last November, and the set was pretty similar despite having some additional band members this time around. Alfons grips the mic and leans toward the audience as though he is begging an executioner for his life. His vocals sound like they're dripping down the back of his throat, which I mean in a good way; in a higher register that same voice can sound nasal, though even then it's often tempered by the pummeling beats that typify Trust's music. What I find really fascinating about Trust is that while these jams have all the glitz and grunge of 90's club scorchers, Alfons consistently looks as if he's just rolled out of bed without bothering to comb his hair or change his sweatpants. Circa 1995, if you heard these songs on the radio you could pretty much assume they were made by muscular men in tight, shiny clothing and leather, or at least some guy wearing eyeliner. It's not necessarily true that a vocalists' style has any import on the music itself, and let's face it, not everyone can be the dude from Diamond Rings. But I find myself a little worried about Alfons; he looks like he's going to slit his wrists in a bathtub the second he walks off stage, and given the caliber of the songs on debut LP TRST, that would really suck.

Trust's set was dank and sludgy in all the right ways, so I almost forgot it was mid-afternoon; I emerged from the dark revery to see Denver-based husband-and-wife duo Tennis setting up. Joined by two additional musicians on drums and synths, Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were picture-perfect; Alaina's tiny frame exploded in a poof of feathery hair and her tall, hunky husband looked like he would put down his guitar any second and hoist her in his beefy arms. It's not hard to imagine these two as Prom King & Queen. Their sophomore album Young and Old, out now on Fat Possum Records, shows quite a growth spurt from 2011's Cape Dory, an album mainly concerned with breezy, beachy anthems (it was inspired by a sailing trip the couple took). Both thematically and lyrically, Tennis have shored things up without losing their pop sensibilities. Their set was shortened by a late set-up but toothache sweet, mostly drawing on songs from the new record and closing with a lively rendition of lead single “Origins”.

Craft Spells played amidst the glassy-eyed mounted animals of Cafe Volstead, and I was beyond excited to see them play. I've followed the band since they began releasing singles in 2009 and was thoroughly pleased with last year's Idle Labor, which included updates of those early demos and drew upon them to create a cohesive 80's-inspired synth-pop gem. Craft Spells nimbly translated the buoyant feel of favorites like “You Should Close The Door” and “Party Talk”; heavy-lidded crooner Justin Vallesteros seemed less the sensitive, socially awkward recluse implied by some of his more heartsick lyrics, fearlessly surveying the crowd and blissfully bopping to his own hooky melodies. The boyish good looks of all four bandmates had at least one lady (me) swooning in the audience, wanting to somehow smuggle them out of the venue in my pockets.

I was right down the street from Cheer Up Charlie's, a brightly painted heap of cinder blocks hunched in a dusty lot on E 6th where electronic mastermind Dan Deacon would soon be unpacking his gadgetry. First, I stopped at an adjacent food truck trailer park and ate what I deemed “Best SXSW Sandwich” - The Gonzo Juice truck's pulled pork roast with carrot slaw, gobs of schiracha cream sauce, and spicy mustard piled on (what else?) Texas Toast. This obviously isn't a food blog, but as I sat at the crowded picnic table I had a definite SXSW moment; across from me some guys were talking about shows they'd played earlier and shows they were playing later in the week. I sat there reveling in deliciousness and simultaneously trying to figure out what band they were in based on venues and time slots. While for most part everyone SXSW is in nonstop party mode, many of the musicians play two and sometimes three sets a day, and then find time to go to their friends' shows. And despite all of the gear they have to haul and strained vocal chords and hangover headaches, these guys talked excitedly about contributing to that experience. Not that I didn't before, but I really found myself appreciating that energy and enthusiasm; the passion and drive of the musicians who come to Austin this particular week in March is the biggest factor as to why SXSW is so exhilarating.

Speaking of enthusiasm, if you've ever seen Dan Deacon live then you're well aware of the level of energy necessary to survive one of his sets (and if you haven't, seriously, what are you waiting for?). Deacon's densely layered electronic arrangements provide a backdrop for the zany activities that he introduces between the songs. His instructions can include interpretive dance contests, high fives, mimicry, and sometimes chanting. He'll either divide the audience into specific sections or ask the audience to make a circle, introduces a concept, and then pretty much everyone joins in the fun, because the main draw of a Dan Deacon show is the wacky outcome of hipster pretentiousness falling away. Deacon does this at every show, making the antics typical by now, but that doesn't mean it isn't fun, because in all of us there is this hyperactive five-year-old who just wants to eat a bunch of candy and jump around forever and ever, and these shows cater to that exuberant inner child. He has a knack for turning an audience from spectators into participants, and with the shift from the traditional singer-guitar-drummer-bassist band model into a more experimental, electronic-driven realm, where it's sometimes just one guy on stage with a computer, being able to do that is paramount. Though Deacon is normally backed by multiple drummers and a bevy of live musicians, one unique aspect of this particular performance was that Deacon was flying solo, so it's a good thing he's been honing his audience involvement skills for a long time. He didn't even perform on the stage provided, but in the pit of dust with everyone crowding around him - the bizarro ringleader of an impromptu circus. While Deacon claimed to hate playing SXSW, no one saw true evidence of such – he seemed rather like he was enjoying himself. He introduced some new material, which was promising considering the fact that his last release, Bromst, is by now three years old. His next release, a first on new label Domino, is slated to drop sometime this year.

I was pretty excited about the awesome acts lined up for The Hype Machine's crazy “Hype Hotel” endeavor. I'm not sure what the space is normally used for, but they seemed to have a good thing going in the mid-sized building; there was often a line to get inside that stretched around the block. I'd RSVP'd and was particularly excited for that evening's show – Neon Indian opening for Star Slinger, guaranteed to result in an insane dance party. Unfortunately, RSVPing didn't matter since by the time I went to pick up my gimmicky little “key card” and wristband, they'd run out, and I was therefore shit out of luck. Since trying and failing to get into the Jesus & Mary Chain show the night before had taught me a valuable lesson about not wasting time at SXSW, I shrugged my shoulders about it (it helped that I'd already seen both acts prior to SXSW) and decided to choose from one of the 2,015,945,864,738 other bands playing.

One of those bands was Nite Jewel, Mona Gonzalez's solo project fleshed out by a couple of guys and a badass lady drummer. I've remained sort of undecided about whether I really like Nite Jewel's music; though the dreamy pop songs are not in and of themselves particularly divisive, the music sometimes falls flat for me. I'll listen for a minute, ask myself if I really like it, think that I do, decide that I don't, turn it off, then inevitably revisit it. But there are two reasons I'm siding in favor of Nite Jewel once and for all. For one thing, her newest record One Second Of Love is brimming with sublime pop nuggets that amplify all the best aspects of Mona's tunes. There's still a dreamy minimalist quality, but the songs are less lo-fi and more straightforward, more accessible. The second reason I'm now an official Nite Jewel fan is that her show was fantastic. Part of the eclectic Wax Poetics bill, Mona rocked the line-up with cutesy energy and just the right amount of kitsch. She danced around next to her keyboards like the heroine of an eighties movie might dance alone in her bedroom, and that's really the quality that imbues all the tracks on her latest offering, and the biggest draw in listening to them. Since the equipment set up had taken a little longer than expected, her set was short, though to her credit Mona begged the sound tech to let her keep going, reminding him that “They're pop songs they're short”. While it's true that these inspired bursts of affection issue forth in a gauzy blur, they are far from simple pop songs, driven by her distinct personality and sound.

On my way to meet up with Annie at the S.O. Terik showcase in the the neighborhood, I had to stop by Status Clothing, a 6th Street storefront where 9-year old phenom DJ BabyChino was on the turntables. Billed as the World's Youngest DJ, BabyChino is nothing if not adorable, dressed like many of his forebears in the requisite urban garb but in much, much smaller sizes, and sporting large, plastic-rimmed glasses on his shaved head. He's Vegas-based but has toured the world, though he had to stand on a raised platform just to reach his turntables and laptop. Every once in a while, he'd mouth the words to the old school hip-hop he was spinning, elevating his badass status but still made me want to say “awww", which is something I've not said of any other DJ, performer, or producer, ever. He drew quite a crowd of gawkers, and because most of them were watching from outside the glass windows of the storefront I started wondering if this little guy felt less like a DJ and more like a taxidermied antelope at the Museum of Natural History. I also wondered at what age BabyChino will want to drop the "baby" from his name, and will make his mom stop leaving notes in his lunchbox.

I wandered far down Red River into the woodsy area between downtown proper and the river, filled with leafy, down-home bars. As I meandered about, looking for some friends I was meeting up with, I heard Gardens & Villa performing “Orange Blossom” at one of the bars. This song gives me shivers of springtime joy; Gardens & Villa is one of those bands I kind of ignored for a while, not for any reason other than I simply can't hear everything, but at this point I'm super excited for their debut record to drop and was really hoping to catch one of their sets while in Austin. My timing was perfect in that regard but I honestly couldn't figure out which bar they were playing or how to get in to see them. I had a decent-ish view from the street, even if my short stature made seeing over the fence difficult. I could hear the band just fine and their sound was spot on. However, since this set up made me feel like a weirdo stalker and I had promised to meet up with my posse, I moved on.

Clive Bar had a sprawling multilevel patio that is probably very nice when there aren't bands squished awkwardly into a tiny area making it impossible to view the stage and impossible to move through the cramped crowd. Because Annie is the shit and had a raw hookup we hung out in this “Green Room” area that was really more of a log cabin bungalow to the side of the stage. A really gnarly painting of a nude lady with a rabbit's head was mounted on the ceiling; all around her were bunnies in various stages of Boschian copulations but rendered in a comic-book style. We slugged beers in this secret, magical little den while New Build played their poppy indie jams. Everything New Build does sounds like it could be soundtracking some cheesy movie – whether it's funky 70's espionage flicks or 80's roadtrip rom coms. I don't know if that's really a bad thing, especially since they tackle that task with flair and aplomb. But I also have to admit that I wasn't paying a lot of attention, mesmerized as I was by all the bunny sex going on in the painting above my head, and the two semi-obnoxious girls arm-wrestling because (I guess) they thought it would impress whatever dudes were around. Plus, New Build are some pretty unassuming dudes; they all wore nondescript tees in neutral colors, sported prerequisite beards (not that you'll ever hear me complain about a beard), and gave the impression that they were there solely to play some songs in as understated a fashion as possible. Which they did.

When Grimes took the stage we were able to stand in the photo bay, giving us a great view of the bizarro-pop goddess. Maybe I should mention that I have a total girlcrush on Claire Boucher (if I haven't already elsewhere on this blog), a crush which (dark)bloomed last summer when I saw her open for Washed Out. Unfortunately Boucher was not having a good night - the equipment at the venue was half-busted, and her voice was fast disappearing with the strain of singing in showcase after showcase, making it difficult for her to hit the falsettos omnipresent in her tunes. She swore a lot, but she was the only one who truly seemed to mind all the technical difficulties – everyone else was enthralled by her, dance-marching in her futuristic get-up, tucking her mic between her shoulder and her cheek while twisting knobs or plinking keyboard notes. While I want to keep Grimes and her quirky woodland-sprite magic all to myself, I'm glad everyone is as head over heels for her as I am, because she is a true artist. The second you write her off as some half-baked weirdo, she throws out some deep metaphysical theme, or else she's chronicling her difficulties with intimacy in a way that's every bit as real and accessible as someone who's half as cool. I could go on, but I'm already embarrassing myself.

Since I was working on my own death cough it was time to call it a night. My final day in Austin was upon me, and I'd finally redeemed myself, in the nick of time.