After two days of running around and catching music, SXSW is starting to wear me down. Here were the most notable performances I saw yesterday:
There’s something peculiar about Trust’s eternal twilight set on a backdrop of abject normalcy, but I suppose raucous, drinks-flowing day parties are never the ideal place to consume a new taste – especially one of such darkly chromatic appeal. Trust come imported from Toronto, overlapping a few members with the similarly melodramatic Austra. They make gloomy, pulsating synth-pop, in the sense that you could envision a few of their songs on one of those proto-hipster Twilight soundtracks – I mean that as a compliment. Against all odds-- the light, the bar murmur, the fact that they were playing in a space rightfully dubbed a cantina--they actually managed to cast a shadow. The anemic trio of Canadians’ danceable gloom made for a solid day-show incantation. Here was a band with vision, grace, respectably unfettered with the surroundings. It felt like we were in their personal universe, which is probably the best compliment you can pay.
I don’t know if there’s a less desirable slot in SXSW than being a slippery, synth-flavored rock band playing the infamous Fader Fort early in the afternoon. Watching your guitar rays bounce off an empty lawn and a few disaffected dudes sliding through their iPhones never makes for a reassuring SXSW. Still, you gotta give White Arrows credit for making it look like it wasn’t bothering them. Rock music comes easy to them, dressed in pastels, jibing across the stage; their keyboardist was wearing what you could only describe as a psychedelic watermelon tee. At every turn their singer told the gathered few that they were “really happy to be here.” Right. The music? Kinda like a cross between Wavves fuck-all abandon and bedroom-pop cheese – I thought they were Oberhofer for a good 10 minutes. Take that as you will.
Korallreven’s An Album was one of those albums that received a lot of attention from a very specific corner of the music writing universe (ours included). It’s not that bleary electro-shoegaze pleasure is unmarketable; it’s just that Korallreven have a subtly bizarre aesthetic. They’re very hard to pin down, a half-turn past dance-music towards twinkling ambient glory. Honestly the music couldn’t be any less suited for a stage, much less inside Red 7, but they made a surprisingly good impression. There was little dancing--mainly just druggy head-nodding-- the delicate intermixing of gauze and guitar convincing the audience to forget about all the insanity for a minute. I still don’t think I “get it,” but Korallreven live made a lot more sense than I thought it would.
Dent May's new live band have got that southern swing, that Sun Records grit, and a knack for old-school popcraft – jaunty vocal harmonies, involved bass trickery and a full-bodied guitar at the center. More than any band I’ve seen this week, this looked the most like a couple of friends on stage. They have no mythology or whispery back-story, just a yippy rock band from the south. They just seemed happy to play a show. Dent May is unfortunately the exact kind of band (and man) to get lost in the grand scheme of things, but everyone who happened to be near Red 7’s outside stage in the late-afternoon were happy to see them play.
Man, those Youth Lagoon songs have a way of making everyday moments feel like great emotional cues: The honesty of Trevor Powers’ songwriting is not something that anyone can take for granted. In his usual ballcap and flannel, he took the stage unceremoniously, said his hellos, and informed us that his beat machine was currently running on about six AA batteries. As anyone who has interviewed him will tell you, he’s a relentlessly nice guy – his songwriting feels like it comes from the depths of him. When he did start playing, nothing else could apply. It felt like the sun shadowed over – Youth Lagoon are the center of the solar system when they’re playing. “Posters,” “17,” “July;” they make us dance and cry at the same time. Sure say they sound the same, it’s true, but six months in and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet.
Sigh, in terms of face-palming schedule structuring, I don’t think anything came close to positioning Mirel Wagner on Red 7’s inside stage right after the doors opened – essentially forcing the dour Finnish/Ethiopian folk-blues singer to play to first-drink chatter. For someone who makes such beautifully aching music that requires a certain level of silence to thrive, it felt like the bookers didn’t even bother to listen to the acts. Wagner was solitary on stage, in black, guitar over her lap. She talked briefly about each of her songs, “(No Hands” is a sad story trying to be happy) and then she played the best she could, doing her best to put the myriad of distractions out of mind. The few dozen who came to see her play stood in a semi-circle around her stage, out of respect and sorrow for her situation. It all felt wrong, and Mirel did her best to make it seem right.
Tennis’ Alaina Moore sings and dances in a way that I think my mom would sing and dance after a half-bottle of wine and a microphone in her hand. Towards the back of the audience you see an older executive, one who’s here because of business obligations and has probably not seen live music in a long time, gently swing her hips with a safe, reassured smile across her face. I don’t know if my mom has heard Tennis, but I reckon she’d probably like them – the Denver husband-and-wife duo make the music our parents’ parents loved with a certain level of pastiche, but it’s almost like their irony backfired.
THEE OH SEES
Thee Oh Sees were rocking a party organized by none other than Last Call With Carson Daly. Perhaps because he had nothing better to do, Carson Daly was on hand the whole show. He was a good professional for the most part, but when it came time for San Francisco garage-demons Thee Oh Sees’ Daly grabbed the mic and unleashed a distinctly NSFW “ARE YOU FUCKING READY!!!” Thee Oh Sees proceeded to hollow the skulls of everyone in the audience.
There’s not a lot to say about a half-hour bulldozing by Thee Oh Sees, simply because that’s what these guys do. They play zillions of shows with the same snarled ethos, the same corrosive guitars, and the same wily demeanor. I will say that even Daly called them “underrated.” Take that as you will.