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.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Baby's First SXSW: Thursday

Tucked between the bustle of E 6th and some seemingly deserted train tracks was the South by Southwest nexus of Fader Fort and a converted warehouse identified only by its address at 1100 E. 5th, which would host an array of bands under the daring header “Mess With Texas”.  I was especially grateful for the stellar lineup sponsored by a slew of vendors, since I'd somehow tragically forgotten to RSVP for Fader Fort.  The Mess With Texas showcases were set to span three days and featured impressive rosters in both their day parties and their nighttime extravaganzas, with the venue shutting down midday.  There was an outdoor space buffeting the huge warehouse floor which was equipped with massive, pounding amps.  I don't know if it's just the necessity of drowning out all the bands other than the one you're actually seeing, but I want to take a moment to note how extremely loud every single showcase I saw was.  I mean, I could feel my hair follicles vibrating at some of these shows.

I felt guilty for missing Tycho's set the night before so I planted myself beneath the awning of the outdoor stage, determined not to miss these boys this time.  I was slightly disappointed, however, that due to the stage configuration the songs would not be accompanied by Scott Hansen's gorgeous projections, which I'd been looking forward to seeing firsthand.  Even without the visuals, Tycho bathed the crowd in a lush soundscape.  Just as we settled into the dense, intoxicating layers, the speakers blew and silence fell.  Apparently this had  happened to Tycho earlier in the week, which only proves my assertion that no eardrum in Austin was safe from the incredible volume SXSW venues unleashed.  It didn't take long for the band to get it together and the encouraging crowd didn't seem to mind the temporary snafu, falling right back into the sway.  Despite the blazing sun beating on our shoulders, watching Tycho felt like being cleansed.  Atmospheric, breezy guitar tones moved across my skin, anchored in Zac Brown's elastic bass chords and the sensual beats provided by drummer Rory O'Connor.  I let my vision blur out of focus, tilted my head back to the sky, and let the serene sounds saturate my senses.

Once Tycho's set ended, I moved inside to escape the sun and (more importantly) to catch a few songs from indie darlings Girls.  The incredible stage set-up included four band members as well as a coterie of boisterous back-up singers who did double-duty hyping up the audience.  Flowers adorned the mic stands, reminiscent of so many altars and therefore drawing parallels between the players on stage and religious deities.  I'd never seen Girls play live, and quite honestly never understood all the hype behind what I considered to be pretty run-of-the-mill garage rock.  I know everyone is constantly losing their shit over the latest Girls releases, but for some reason none of the material ever really resonated with me.  I can't say that a venue this cavernous and filled with questionably shirtless bros was the ideal introduction, but in terms of their playing I can at least begin to see what all the fuss is about.  There's a compelling, vulnerable nature to the way Christopher Owens sings; this is true even at moments where the guitars burst explosively and the theatrics reach their greatest heights.  “Vomit”, the band's signature single, was a perfect example of this phenomenon, as it erupted with particular ferocity and brought the adoring crowd to its knees.

At some point (the point at which I tried to buy an overpriced Heinekin) I realized I'd left my ID in the pocket of last night's outfit.  Worried I would be denied entrance to any other showcases I tried to attend, I actually braved the crazy traffic to drive across town and retrieve it, hoping I'd make it back to the warehouse in time to see Cults.  I arrived about halfway through their set but was absolutely tickled with what I saw.  I've followed Cults since they began anonymously posting demos on bandcamp in the spring of 2010, but had somehow missed every single performance the Brooklyn-based band had played.  The set lived up to all my expectations.  It was sweltering inside the warehouse, the midday heat having turned it into an oven.  So it was hard to imagine how Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin, both sporting hairdos that would made Cousin It look positively bald, held up under such intense temperatures.  But they seemed unfazed, running through favorites such as “Oh My God” “You Know What I Mean” and “Go Outside” with smiling faces and cutesy bopping.  Madeline's vocals sounded sublime and the band perfectly replicated the 60's girl group vibe that made their 2011 self-titled debut such a standout.

There was plenty on the menu in terms of shows that evening; Of Montreal and Deerhoof made one of a handful of what were probably noteworthy and fun appearances.  I would have loved to see Das Racist, Dirty Beaches, or Zola Jesus, for a second (or third) time, and I was dying to catch Cleveland noise pop outfit Cloud Nothings.  While all provided great options for ways to spend my second night in Austin, I could think of nothing but this: at the Belmont that evening, Jesus and Mary Chain were slated to perform around midnight.  In my obsession with getting into this packed, badge/wristband/ticket only show, I committed one of the cardinal sins of SXSW.  No band, no matter how rare or epic the appearance, no matter how important to you in terms of influence or admiration, should cause you to wait around in a huge line with no hope of entry into the venue, thus forgoing the chance to see any one of a number of other of bands; even if your secondary choices don't compare to the actual experience of seeing the prolific band in question, almost anything is better than standing around waiting for nothing to happen and missing out on a host of other opportunities.  I did put in a brief appearance at 512 for Young Magic's rooftop set, which was thrillingly luxurious.  A sumptuous rendition of “Night In The Ocean” featured reverb drenched male and female vocals twining around its incantatory chorus.  But I couldn't get my mind off the possibility of seeing Jesus & Mary Chain.

After a few frantic texts, the idea of watching the show from the parking garage across the street was bandied about and that's eventually where we found ourselves.  In all honesty, I was content with the set-up, as we had a perfect view of the stage and again, thanks to the punishing volume at which all venues set their amps, could hear Titus Andronicus's set perfectly.  If I didn't hold that band in such disdain I would have been nearly ecstatic, but I do totally think they're overblown and pretentious and I was tired and still a little bummed, knowing that this was all a fool's paradise.

Jesus & Mary Chain ripped through their first few numbers in a sonic blast that would have reached us even if our little perch had been blocks away rather than across the street.  Unfortunately, we saw all of about three songs before a group of crusty idiots totally blew our cover and got us promptly kicked out by a surly security guard.

Defeated and dejected, we trudged back to the Mess With Texas warehouse, where was hosting a slew of DJs in an elaborate promotion for the site, which allows users to DJ for their friends and random strangers alike in private chatrooms loosely based around a genre or theme.  When first launched I spent an amusing evening in one of these chat rooms with my roommates and some of their coworkers, as well as some friends of ours back in Ohio.  It seemed a novel way to share new tunes with old buddies, though my interest in doing so had since tapered off.  I wasn't a high school sophomore anymore, you know?  I spend enough time in front of a computer as it is without haunting chat rooms, waiting for my chance to blow minds with some new Clams Casino track.  I decided to start a blog instead.

I'm not sure if many of the other attendees had had similar experiences with but if they had not, they were certainly introduced to its interface that evening.  Diplo stood center stage but was flanked by dancers shuffling around in over-sized Japanime-style animal heads meant to mimic the avatars available to users on  There was also a table full of paper avatar masks right at the door, presumably for guests to wear as a means of creeping each other the fuck out.  Huge screens showed a cute little animated version of Diplo spinning.  It was kitschy and sort of fun, but also kind of over-the-top.  At SXSW you're constantly being marketed to, and sometimes its nice to have things like the music to focus on to forget that. was not going to let you be distracted by a silly-old real-life DJ like Diplo.  Actually, I'm pretty sure the man has some kind of investment in the whole project, but still.

Diplo spun classics like MIA and Ginuwine and spent a lot of time getting an already rowdy crowd pumped up into a delirious craze.  I saw some truly raunchy dance moves and if I'd been a little drunker probably would have joined in, but I was still feeling like an idiot over the whole Jesus & Mary Chain debacle.  I vowed that Friday would be a day of redemption; I'd see so many bands my eyeballs would fall out of my skull.  I'd shake my tail feather furiously to Star Slinger and Neon Indian's Hype Hotel DJ sets.  I'd reserve my energy tonight and tomorrow collapse from exhaustion if that was what it came down to.  Who was I kidding?  I'm getting older and was already a bit exhausted; I could feel a sore throat coming on.  No matter! I shouted bravely to myself.  These shows will go on, and I'm gonna try to see damn near all of them.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Baby's First SXSW: Wednesday

From the onset of my journey to Austin, my head had been swimming with all the possibilities – bands to see, things to do, drinks to drink. I arrived Tuesday night but didn't venture downtown into all the action until Wednesday. There was an array of great bands playing a day party at Red 7 but since they didn't have free beer we only stuck around for a few of La Sera's songs. Katy Goodman, formerly of Vivian Girls, is as adorable as you'd expect, with her sweet voice and long red tresses. She brings assured pop sensibility to any stage, and the hooks kept coming. But hunger and alcoholism won out and we haunted Jackalope's for the next hour, guzzling free Coors and eating veggie burgers topped with non-veggie bacon. There were bands playing inside but they were not of the sort that was more interesting that sitting in the sun on the patio.

A friend of mine really wanted to see Lee Fields & the Expressions, and though I'd admittedly never heard of the group, was happy to tag along. We crossed I-35, stepping into a a completely different world from the chaos of downtown. The East Side of Austin is full of quirky dives and smartly dressed youths. Before heading over to Shangri-La's, we stopped at a little booth just under the highway to try our hands at a little knife throwing. This booth also enthusiastically sold shots of whatever liquor you preferred, and only shots. Throwing knives are not as sharp as you think they're going to be, and it's surprisingly easy to get the hang of once you get your mind off the fact that you are throwing a knife and just let it fly (the shots really help with that). After a few tries I actually sunk one, and found myself wondering if, upon my return to Brooklyn, I could swing a set-up in the tiny cement patch I like to call a backyard. Then maybe the awful neighbors in the building next to mine would grow to fear me, and actually shut up when politely yelled at or stop tossing their trash and human waste into my air shaft.

By the time we entered the dimly lit dive of Shangri-La's most of my ass-kicking warrior visions had subsided. Los Angeles band White Arrows were playing beneath green fluorescent lights, their psych-tinged pop rippling through the tiny space. Their new material seems to take a cue from calypso and Afro-pop fusion acts a la Vampire Weekend, abandoning the overwrought vocal-heavy dance funk that typified their self-titled 2010 EP. It will be exciting to hear their full-length follow-up to the “Get Gone” single, slated for release sometime this year.

Outside, The Expressions had already begun to warm up with a few songs sans vocalist Lee Fields. After a glowing introduction, he unassumingly walked on stage in baggy jeans and a simple t-shirt, but the voice that issued from this man belonged in the sequined jumpsuits of James Brown. He may not have been one of the buzz acts of SXSW 2012, but Fields has been singing since the 70's, having cut a few singles in that decade but never releasing a full album until the late 90's when he hooked up with Leon & Jeff of the Expressions. The recent interest in soul and funk revival acts like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings led to the recording and release of 2009's My World and his newest, Faithful Man, out on Truth & Soul Records. Fields is a versatile recording artist, swinging effortlessly between soul, blues, and funk; his voice is timeless, powerful, and emotive. A consummate performer, he had the audience dancing, chanting, and clapping, but did so effortlessly, making it look easy as only a veteran performer can do. Standout tracks included classics “Ladies” and “Honey Dove” and the appropriately titled “I Still Got It”. Yes you do, Lee, yes you do.

After the enlightening set it was time to hunt down my fellow AudioFemme, who I spotted sitting on a grassy knoll at 5th & Neches. We headed down to Club DeVille for the Ghostly International showcase, catching the end of Chrome Sparks' set. Chrome Sparks is the pseudonym of Jeremy Malvin, a Philadelphia native studying percussion in Ann Arbor, where his path crossed with Ghostly label founders. He looked every bit the college boy, with his hair close-cropped and his snugly-fitted polo, sheepishly blending vocal snippets and orchestral loops over gleaming synths and quirky beats. By the time he closed with heater “Soul & <3” from his self-produced debut My <3 (available on Bandcamp) he had fully won over the audience.

Mux Mool (aka producer and DJ Brian Lindgren) followed, exuding laid-back cool, confidently bobbing his head to beats he knew would get the audience moving. The crowd obliged with rapt attention to his technical mastery; with each twist of the dials on the equipment before him it was as though he was winding up the audience. Eschewing the glitchy effects of his older material for the more expansive vibe present on recently released Planet High School was a smooth move indeed, and well received. “Mux” is a shortened form of the term multiplexing, which describes the ability to filter multiple streams of information through one channel, and that term perfectly captures the strengths of Lindgren's compositions and their translation to a live stage – he takes turns showcasing each element of a track, highlighting chunky beats at once and then turning up synths, uninterested in the dull habits of other beat-makers who simply allow the same loops to build to frenzy and expect reaction based solely on the anticipation of a drop you knew was coming from a mile away. It's the difference between telling and showing – Mux Mool goes beyond narrator into the realm of true storytelling, where the songs act as paragraphs written in his own pulsating language. 

After so much electronic stimulation, it was time for a bit of a change. Choir of Young Believers provided such, the group seven members large including a lovely red-headed cellist. Their brand of moody, swirling dream pop was only slightly cheered up for the showcase, hinting at a bit of folkiness but drawing on the orchestral drama that gives their newest album, Rhine Gold, its unique quality. Tied together by lead singer and group founder Jannis Noya Makrigiannis's arcing, soulful vocals were elements of big-band brass, soaring strings, mournful saxophones, and glistening keys, each lending opulent vibes to the band's set.

Shigeto was up next. The stage full of musicians was replaced by Zac Sagninaw, whose moniker comes from his middle name and his rich Japanese heritage. While his recorded material is delicate and introspective, his live shows are kinetic. Not content with the removed rhythms of a drum machine, Shigeto climbs behind an actual drum set and goes wild. It's hard to give drummers their due; though they're largely responsible for the listener's most visceral connection to a song they're tucked away behind the rest of the band. Shigeto has found a way to remind us of the importance of a thumping drum solo, and his skill with a kit is mind-blowing. People around me were gasping as we watched his sticks fly. I felt as though I was watching a hummingbird, trying to freeze-frame wings that move so fast they blur and become invisible.

It was around this time that I received a text from a friend notifying me that A$AP Rocky was playing at Annex and despite highly anticipated sets from Tycho and Com Truise, I knew I had to see the Mob's set. The line was surprisingly short but inside it was packed with a pretty eclectic audience. There were a dozen or so people on stage, most of them shirtless but for heavy gold chains. A$AP made his influences clear, sampling The Diplomats and Wu-Tang, and delivered his characteristically woozy verses with youthful energy. His swag was in full effect as he flashed his blinding grill and looked as if he was truly having a blast. The audience was right there with him, raising hands and waving arms, carrying performers as they dove from the stage and into the crowd. It was an amazing end to my first night at SXSW; I emerged from the masses covered in other people's sweat, helped myself to a late-night cheesesteak from a food cart, and mentally prepared myself to do it all again the next day.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Baby's First South by Southwest: An Introduction

I'm staring at a computer screen, my eyes bleary, my bones aching. We've stopped in a hotel in someplace called Arkadelphia at 3AM to get a few hours rest before continuing our drive. It's Sunday, and South by Southwest has just ended, queuing our departure from Austin, Texas. Tomorrow we'll continue the journey to Ohio, where I'll spend a few days doing absolutely nothing with my parents, and it will feel great after the glut of free shows, free beer, free food, and general debauchery that made up my first year at SXSW.

For now, I'm just trying to wrap my head around the whole of it. After having decided I would have to miss it again this year, things kept falling into place and suddenly there I was, standing on Texas soil, a balmy breeze ruffling my hair, wild with curls in the humidity. The week flew by in a blur and now all that remains is a sore throat and indelible tinnitus, a few LPS and some free beer cozies.

I can't say that I didn't have expectations for the week. Some of them held up and some of them didn't. I knew I wouldn't get to see all of the showcases I had initially planned to attend, though all told I probably wound up missing only a few acts I really would have loved to see. I found myself constantly having to choose – do I go to Club DeVille for Pictureplane or Flamingo Cantina for Tennis? - and making decisions based on whether I'd already seen the bands in NYC, how epic I thought the performances would be, if the RSVP policy would be lax enough to sneak past the gate, whether I'd have to brave the morass of 6th Ave, and how many points I'd get on FourSquare for checking into a new venue. Oh, and whether or not I could drink for free once I got there.

I didn't really get the hang of it until midweek, by which time I was cramming in at least seven performances a day, catching free Chevys and dodging pedicab drivers like I was born to do it. But some of the best moments came early in the week, when my lack of SXSW know-how introduced me to the whole shebang in a more relaxed manner and I let everything come to me instead of breaking my neck to take in all I could. Those moments included a jamboree with some neighbors who sang Buddy Holly's “Everyday” by my request, a family BBQ way East of the action (I had to ride in the back of a pickup truck full of gear to get downtown afterward), learning to throw knives, peacock spotting, and three very random conversations I had as I juiced my phone at the Whole Foods solar charging station.

meeting the locals
During one of those conversations, I pondered with a fellow blogger as to whether SXSW could really happen in any other city. The answer we came up with was an unequivocal NO. It's not a big town, but its size is to its advantage; it makes it walkable, bikeable, accessible. The weather is gorgeous (or at least was the week I was in town) and its residents incredibly accommodating and personable. But the feature of Austin that really makes it uniquely suited to a festival like SXSW is that it pulses – practically every bar has a patio, which means practically every bar has the potential to host two and sometimes three bands at once. You can walk through almost any part of town and hear music happening all around you, coming from every direction. As you walk down the street, there are buskers, puppeteers, old men with fiddles and accordions and bongos performing in the middle of the street, school buses converted into mobile venues, storefronts housing DJs, and on and on and on. Literally everywhere you look, someone is vying for the chance to entertain you. While it seems like this would be overwhelming, the energy is intoxicating. It carries you as if caught in a current, and it's difficult not to be swept away.

In between the bands I made a point to see and the bands I knew I was doomed to miss, there were a handful of bands I saw inadvertently, many of which blew me away. Some of these performances were among my favorite. Therein lies the beauty of a thing like SXSW – it's easy to make a mile-long list of bands that are familiar but hard to see everyone on it, and while scurrying from one end of town to the next or waiting in line for admittance into a venue that's already at capacity it's easy to forget that the opportunity is there to be introduced to completely new acts. But that potential for discovery is what SXSW is all about, is why this festival draws acts from all over the globe and thousands upon thousands of fans.

warriors beneath dusky skies
So what follows, dear readers, is my SXSW diary, a chronological account of everything that made the week so memorable. I think if there's anything this blog truly showcases, it's a passion for existing in the thick of musical experience. For the fuzzy areas of my memory, there are videos and pictures to fill in the gaps, and my hope is that the amalgamation of the three will somehow communicate every thrill, every joy, every moment that made the week worth documenting.

Friday, March 9, 2012

AF MIXTAPE: Farewell to Winter

This mix represents some of the best moments of February in terms of new releases and live shows we attended but keeps an eye on the springtime that's just ahead of us.  You won't find many bombastic summer jams, but hopefully that delicious first blush of warmer weather permeates these tracks.  Enjoy!

Mi & L'au – Limouzine: I once saw this band play in a treehouse. Technically I guess it was a room situated around a huge tree, with a bar situated around that. Still, there was a tree! And their songs sounded like the kind of music you might hear in a treehouse (treehousewave?). If Beauty Is A Crime is the first new album they've put out in a while and at moments it retains an isolated-in-the-woods vibe, here Mi & L'au are branching out into lots of new territories. This track, with its pulsing, sparkling synths is a great example of those explorations.

Chairlift – I Belong In Your Arms: Caroline Polachek must be taking cues from those she's collaborated with (Washed Out, Guards) in the interim between releasing Something and 2008's Does You Inspire You? Or perhaps it's just the difference between putting some thought into making a record instead of slapping one together because one of your tracks has been featured in an iPod commercial and you need to capitalize on it instantly. Either way, Chairlift's new record is a gem filled with soaring new wave declarations, but far less naïve and hokey than its predecessor.

Lapalux – Moments: On this crackling beat collage, female vocals (provided by Py) coo “I keep thinking of you”; likewise, this track is just the kind of earworm that sticks with you all day. Cascading drum machines, dissonant bells, spacey synths, and tweaked, slowed effects blend seamlessly. It might not get a party going, but acts as a perfect anthem for those still coming down after the majority of the crowd has shuffled off.

James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream: After seeing a live rendition of this at Carnegie Hall last month, I've been listening to this track incessantly. Its slow gorgeous build behind Blake's velvety crooning is almost too much to handle. It seems so sparse on first listen, but every time it slips into the rotation, I hear something new come out of it, proving its density and depth.

School of Seven Bells – Scavenger: We'll always wonder if this scathing track is about the departure of half of SVIIB's singing twin duo, but it could just as easily be about an ex-lover, or an animal that feeds on carrion, I guess. They're doing just fine without any or all of the above, as new album Ghostory and the live shows they've played to promote it prove.

Xiu Xiu – Smear The Queen: I am ecstatic that this band is still putting out amazing albums after twelve years of making records. The first single from Always, entitled “Hi” is as bold a flirting anthem as they come, and almost made it onto this mix – until I heard “Smear The Queen” and was blown away by the dual vocals, haywire beats

Hanne Hukkelberg – My Devils: If you're still confusing Hanne with her Scandinavian counterpart Lykke Li based on the extraordinary prevalence of the letter K in their names, please take a moment to realize that this is where the comparison ends. Featherbrain is far more experimental, representing Hukkelberg more as an artist than provocateur. Listening to this track is like opening a creepy haunted music-box, her vocals a yearning Pandora struggling to be free of her demons.

Frankie Rose – The Fall: I seriously can't stop listening to or talking about this song. The other day I was walking through the park at dusk with this on my headphones, trying to decipher the ethereal layers of lyrics. Every time I pinned down a line, the next popped up in its place, a mirage shimmering on the aural horizon, superimposed by the next hallucination.

Grimes – Vowels = space and time: Visions is an amalgamation of everything that is awesome about Claire Boucher – bizzaro bedroom pop with Chippettes-esque vocals, long-lost Goth Olsen twin look, deep philosophical musings disguised by a half-baked twitter feed, a not-so-secret obsession with divas of the early 90's R&B scene. Check out my video below of Grimes performing “Genesis” last July in an opening set for Washed Out.

Shlohmo – wen uuu: With last year's Bad Vibes, L.A. Producer Henry Laufer strayed from the staid hip-hop beats of his earlier work and live shows and began exploring more atmospheric sounds and experimental textures. On his three track EP Vacation, we can hear him coming through static and into his own with undeniable success.

Still Corners – Don't Fall In Love: Tessa Murray has a voice like honey, making her forlorn love songs (or anti-love songs?) that much more heart-rending. This noise pop slow-burner isn't going to do much to warn me away from falling in love with this band, no matter what the lyrics recommend.

Phèdre – In Decay: This whole album is brilliant. You know that sexy orgy party that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman attend in Eyes Wide Shut? Parties similar to those actually exist, except everyone is as creepy and lonely as you'd expect, and therefore it isn't at all sexy. If those parties were that sexy, but also more hip, this album would be the soundtrack.

Tennis – My Better Self: Much like Chairlift, husband-and-wife duo Tennis have truly matured with the release of their second album. Last year's Cape Dory was fun, but with Young & Old, Tennis have gotten more introspective while retaining that carefree pop sound.

Sharon Van Etten – Magic Chords: When Because I Was In Love was released in 2009, almost no one knew who Sharon Van Etten was. Two albums later, all that has changed. It makes sense, considering that Sharon has one of the most gorgeous voices I've heard in quite a while. Her songwriting skills continue to improve with each effort, though the heavier production on 2010's Epic and her newest, Tramp, is a bit of a detriment to some of the intimacy and grittiness from her first record.

Tropics – Sleepless: Tropics is the project of Chris Ward, who at 22 has been steadily self-releasing an onslaught of party-ready jams and remixes. This track is a bit more mellow than most of his offerings but it the signature lushness of Ward's beats are still present. If most of his tunes signify summer, Sleepless unfurls just the way spring does – suddenly you look up, and there are buds in all the trees and birds are chirping.

Cate Le Bon – Put to Work: Le Bon's impeccable new album Cyrk is exemplified by lead single “Put To Work”; it's lilting guitars and insistent drums perfectly anchor the commanding mystic quality of Le Bon's vocals. The lyrics fit handily into Le Bon's work as well - the idea that while one can't help but crave human intimacy, love is a total drag that turns us into awful drones. But the beauty of this sentiment is that she's resigned to this fact, never chiding or bitter, and the song rolls on with a fluid, perfect grace.

Yann Tiersen – I'm Gonna Live Anyhow: Perhaps best known for his original soundtracks to films like Amelie and Good Bye Lenin!, last year's Skyline saw Tiersen reinventing himself once more. Ever the pioneer, these tracks feature quirky electronic moments and unique vocal rhythms reminiscent at times of acts like Animal Collective.

Songs of Green Pheasant – Teen Wolf: I've long been a fan of Songs of Green Pheasant. The somber brass in this track really puts it over the edge for me, though I don't know what it has to do with teens, wolves, or teen wolves.

Sleigh Bells – End of the Line: With Treats, Sleigh Bells were poised to take over the world (and pretty much did so) and on Reign of Terror, the only thing they really have to contend with is the curse of the sophomore slump. With their trademark fearlessness, Alexa Krauss and Derek Miller have done something completely unexpected – they've scaled back the in-your-face guitar blitz and badder-than-though posturing and crafted something that still manages to pack quite the punch. This track is the perfect example of that new vision, wherein Krausss is no longer striving to remain cool or detached but is actually reaching out to the listener, or at least the person to whom the song is addressed, in an engaging way. Reign of Terror is studded with similar moments of realness, and it's the most brave, refreshing move they could have made.

Shhhh – Bonus Track: This is what she heard in the bathtub. RIP.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

AF Month-in Review: FEBRUARY

At Audiofemme, we don't exactly try to break music news; we're more about pontificating on the news after it has broken.  In honor of that, here's our first monthly recap! It's true that we're a week into March, but this is a look back at some things that happened in February - and without mincing words, exactly what we think about it all.  This installment features MIA, Whitney Houston, why the Grammys are irrelevant, and the best show we'll (possibly) ever see.

AF: After flipping the bird during a Superbowl halftime show performance, the name Maya Arulpragasam was on everyone's lips once again (or anyway, her initial-based moniker, MIA was). But MIA didn't need to extend her middle finger to get our attention, since she already had it with the video for “Bad Girls” released just a few days prior. The song is from the Vicki Leekx mixtape, self-released at the beginning of 2011. Not only is the single far better than pretty much anything from 2010's mostly excruciating /\/\/\Y/\, but the video adds a new level of intensity to an already fierce jam.

MIA reunited with director Romain Garvas, who also had a hand the controversial video/short film for “Born Free”. Looking back on “Born Free” it's hard to say if our distaste stemmed from lukewarm feelings for the track, or if we just thought the video was dumb. AudioFemme has always appreciated the political content in MIA's work. It never feels like a gimmick, mostly because it extends through every expression of her being, from her music to her fashion sense to her live shows and album artwork, not to mention her background and the causes she supports. “Born Free” was sort of an exception to that. While we suppose that someone should call attention to the horrors of genocide, must it be done by depicting a bunch of ginger refugees shuttled to their torture on a crowded deathbus? Are white kids really so blissfully unaware of racial and cultural profiling that they need MIA to clobber them over the head with gory imagery of freckled, pale bodies exploding over land mines? Sadly, the answer is yes, but it felt a bit heavy-handed and obvious.

The video for “Bad Girls” is essentially doing the same thing but in a much more successful manner. It takes a very real topic – oppression of women in the Middle East - and turns their liberation into a orgiastic free-for-all. While it was filmed in Morocco, the desert scenes and clay buildings remain just ambiguous enough to encompass areas of the world where MIA would have been arrested for such openness. Musically speaking, “Born Free” had a much more aggressive sound than “Bad Girls” and in turn, the video was hard to watch. “Bad Girls” delivers its heat as a club-ready scorcher, and so there is a party-at-the-end-of-the-world sort of language to the video. At first glance the future appears strangely dystopian, aimless. Then those first beats drop, MIA gyrates onto the scene wearing iridescent lame, and snarls “Live fast/Die young/Bad girls do it well” and the realization hits: we are actually seeing a utopia where Middle Eastern women are allowed to drive stunt cars, dance provocatively and wear whatever the fuck crazy clothes they feel like wearing.

All aspects of MIA's signature in-your-face attitude are in full effect here - her pouty expressions, provocative gestures, and creative wardrobe. Her bravado is most apparent when she nonchalantly files her nails atop a stunt car driving on two wheels, but every second is infused with the palpable excitement of the most explosive action sequence in any summer blockbuster. At the exact moment MIA asks “Who's gonna stop me if I'm coming through?” she's backed by motorcade of glow-in-the-dark cars and a horde of flamboyantly shrouded back-up dancers on the march, a procession placing her in the position of liberator and leader.

In no time, the video had amassed 25,000 comments so MIA proceeded to respond to those comments in a follow-up video. Unfortunately, the questions were no more insightful than YouTube comments ever seem to be. We learned that see-through cars are expensive to ship, that hopefully MIA's new album will see release during a season where people will be wearing fewer clothes, and MIA promised to go out for drinks with some lucky Brooklynite next time she's in New York. Dude better watch out, I heard that babe likes truffle fries.

Lindsey: Speaking of living fast and dying (relatively) young, the world lost one of its most beloved and talented performers on the 11th with the passing of Whitney Houston.

I was at work when news of Whitney's death was tweeted to my roommate, who was at the time sitting at a corner booth enjoying our delicious pork tostadas and coconut margaritas, and I'll probably always remember that setting. Just like I'll always remember being on the JFK AirTrain when some dude with phone in hand announced to the entire car “HEY EVERYBODY, MICHAEL JACKSON JUST DIED!

A strange thing happens when incredibly well-known pop singers die. On the one hand, there's an element of shock, and then there's the mental preparation one must begin in anticipation of hearing that artist's songs in every public place for the next three months, the fans coming out of the woodwork to testify their love and heartbreak, the tackiness of televised funerals. But in those initial moments, my first thought was to tune Spotify to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and pump up the volume, which is just what I did. In the next few hours we played most of Whitney's back-catalogue, wondering how such a talented, wholesome lady could be so completely derailed by a total asshole and his suitcase full of blow.

After such a time, I began to tire of the schmaltzy sentiment running through most of Whitney's oeuvre, but I did tear up to “I Will Always Love You.” My parents listened exclusively to country music while I was growing up, and when The Bodyguard came out I was in fourth grade and already well familiar with Dolly Parton's original recording. I remember being furious that Whitney had taken all the credit for it – I even had unschooled friends who insisted it was Whitney-penned material. I might have won the bet, but I still looked like a bumpkin.

On the night of her death I found myself at a dance party and when the DJ played “I Wanna Dance” everyone lost their shit. It was a cheap move (albeit one I'd pulled just hours earlier) but that's the charm of Whitney – even when you know the purpose of the music is to appeal to your sappy, overemotional core, it still gets to you, and for that reason alone the imprint she's left on American culture will endure.

Lindsey: Following news of Whitney's death, the 54th Grammy Awards aired on CBS. Admittedly, the Grammys do not interest me in the least, for all the reasons you've probably heard before... that they represent the lowest common denominator of fandom... that they celebrate mediocrity in pop music while ignoring more innovative works easily found just beyond the mainstream... that they haplessly compare apples to oranges in categories that barely apply to the artists nominated... that they are incredibly boring. What I usually say instead of all that is “It's just not my thing” and it isn't – which doesn't make me better or worse than anyone else, even if those preceding sentences make me sound like an incorrigible snob.

In fact, the Grammys often serve to shame me for just how little attention I pay to Top Forty recordings. Someone I was talking to in a bar that Sunday made mention of Kanye West's “All The Lights” and I had to admit I'd never heard it, not even once. Part of it is my general annoyance with Kanye West's personality and poor lyric-writing, though I think he's a stellar producer, but I was still a tad embarrassed.

So with my tail between my legs, I watched maybe two minutes of Nicki Minaj's “Roman Holiday” performance, but all I could say was “UGH, why is everyone obsessed with this trainwreck? I feel like I'm having a nightmare except I'm awake. I'm going to go read in my room.”

And my takeaway was this: at least now the Grammys are recognizing electronic forms of music, even if it is shitty dubstep. And giving awards to chubby girls based on actual talent rather than looks. And giving Dave Grohl a platform to become an internet meme, just like he's always wanted. And finally, we've all been introduced to the genius of Justin Vernon, whom the Grammys discovered.

AF: On the 13th Tibet House hosted its annual benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, curated by Philip Glass.  By far, this concert was the best thing we’ve attended all month, and (given the majority of shows we catch that take place in venues that frequently smell of vomit) probably the most highbrow outing we’ll go on for a long, long time.  The original bill listed Glass, video artist and digital pioneer Laurie Anderson, and minimalist prodigy James Blake, with other performers to be announced. In the following days, Lou Reed was added to the bill. Even then, we knew we were in for a once-in-a-lifetime live music experience.

To get a sense of how UN-willing we were to miss it, picture this: Annie hobbling around with a freshly broken toe (her big toe, no less) having not slept in over 24 hours (and yes, the two are interrelated), completely wacked out on painkillers. Plus, our seats were located in the second balcony. Still, hell would have indeed had to have been frozen over for us not to attend this spectacle.

We made our way to the mezzanine and settled into our fancy velvet theater chairs just as the lights dimmed.  We began to flip through the program wide-eyed with our hearts racing. Page after page of revealed some of our favorite musicians to be unexpected additions to the benefit, including Antony (sans Johnsons), Stephin Merritt, Das Racist, Rahzel, and Patti Smith's Band.

While such an talented line-up might sound intimidating or pretentious, the evening was anything but, its short sets peppered with a lively sense of humor.  While there were a few contemplative moments – the evening began with throat-singing Tibetan monks in radiant yellow robes, and about halfway through the set Tibetan singer Dechen Shak-Dagsay asked the audience to meditate on freedom for Tibet – by and large the night felt like a celebration, and it was never a somber one.

Laurie Anderson set the mood for the evening, performing right after the monks. Over ethereal synths, she recounted a story about a two-week “silent” canoe trip she took down a tributary of the Colorado River, during which she quickly discovered it was not the “meditation retreat” she had signed up for, but rather an opportunity for narcissists to gather and validate one another’s “life stories”.  She garnered more than a few laughs over tales of running into a group for incest survivors who turned the now collective campfire into a platform for oversharing, passing a wooden spoon to take turns speaking into “as if it were a microphone”.

She picked up a violin and was joined on stage by Antony, wearing what can best be described as a muumuu.  His otherworldly voice echoed against the ornate vaulted ceilings. The amazing acoustics of Carnegie made this feel both intimate and immense at the same time.  While the songs had us in tears by the end, shocked that something so beautiful could come out of the mouth of a human, the droll lyrics of Anderson's “The Dream Before” were delivered with Antony's trademark whimsy and sass.

Stephin Merritt longed to have an orchestra behind him while singing “This Little Ukelele” and pretended to be surprised by the string quartet that actually occupied that space.  They joined him in a soaring rendition of “The Book of Love”. But the most uproarious portion of the evening were Das Racist's dual appearances. Heems and Kool A.D. had all the earmarks of dressing it up for Carnegie Hall in their dashing suits, but their lively performance of “Michael Jackson” saw them flirting with the aforementioned string quartet, somersaulting at the stage's edge, and parading around with the American flag that had been innocently fluttering to stage left. Dap wore a traditional Indian dress that somehow made his pelvic thrusting more pronounced and therefore more comical. While the audience was actually comprised of many young folks who likely knew what to expect from the tongue-in-cheek rappers, one has to wonder what older fans of Glass's minimal works had to say about their outrageous contribution to the evening.

All of the hilarity was anchored by stellar performances from stalwart musicians. Lenny Kaye lead Patti Smith's band in a tribute to seminal garage rock comp Nuggets. Rahzel, formerly of The Roots, incorporated robotic dancing and beat-boxing skills into his memorable offering. And Glass's own arrangement of “Pendulum for Violin & Piano” with violin virtuoso Tim Fain was astounding. Even from from the distant balcony in which we sat, you could see his fingers flying, leaving the audience stunned by his show or skill.

Lou Reed finished out the night (we imagine he probably demanded that he get to go last) seeming beleaguered (as always) and taking himself way too seriously (as always), performing a song bemoaning the fact that he’s exceptionally old and looks like it.  It wasn’t all that funny.   But despite the few awkward moments it was difficult not to feel as though we were truly seeing something special when he was joined onstage by the other performers for closing number “I'm Beginning to See the Light”. Philip Glass had turned 75 a few weeks prior, so the house was invited to sing “Happy Birthday” to the genius who had put it all together, a small token of appreciation for all the beauty and delight we'd just witnessed.

Even with all the tremendous talent present that night, it was James Blake that had us swooning, holding a collective breath for fear that if our muscles so much as twitched the whole thing might possibly vanish into thin air like a mirage.  A drummer and guitarist provided sparse backup while the gangly Blake crammed himself behind a keyboard tiny by comparison to his long frame. He played both parts of “Lidnesfarne” before moving into “The Wilhelm Scream” which built to a gorgeous wave of heartbreaking distortion that all but blotted out James's wistful moaning of the lines “I don't know about my dreams / I don't know about my dreaming anymore / All I know is that I'm falling, falling, falling...”  In trying to explain his allure we had to settle on his unfathomable level of maturity for such a young musician as well as his outright innovation; almost no one is doing or can do what it is he does, and the sentiment behind it resonates deeply, on an almost subconscious level. To hear him live was absolutely mesmerizing; his playing electrified the space between himself and the audience. He bashfully offers his being and invites the listener to merge with it, and in so doing we were transformed, our hearts heavier but our heads lighter.  You can check out a clip Annie recorded below; we apologize for its brevity, but the Tibet House Benefit was simply too amazing to experience on a viewfinder.  It was practically too big to wrap our minds around the fact that we were even present for such a wondrous event, laughing one second and crying the next.  Here’s to many more years of Philip Glass curating delightful showcases like this one.

Looking forward to March, AudioFemme will be at SXSW! It's Annie's second year in attendance and Lindsey's first, so we like to argue about who is more excited. The next few weeks are going to be a flurry of RSVPing and making long itineraries that we probably won't stick to. Check our Twitter feed or like us on Facebook as we'll be updating there when we're particularly excited about some showcase or other.  And if you'll be in Austin, feel free to track us down and say hello!