Much as the Sundance Film Festival now attracts legions of YouTubers determined to get their personal video journal released by the Weinsteins, the South By Southwest music conference—after two decades, best recognized as SXSW—has become a magnet for every three-chord dirtbag with an acoustic guitar. No venue? No problem. As long as there are unoccupied ears too drunk to get out of the way, the people will play.
SXSW is officially bigger this year, too, as it has been every year since its inception in 1987. A quick look at the lineup—before I stopped counting—showed that more than 500 artists are performing in clubs, halls, auditoriums, bars, convention centers and stores throughout Texas' somehow-still-funky-cool capital city of Austin.
Sadly, regardless of the number of bands performing, the time-proven ratio of interesting vs. dull—known as Child's Critical Algorhythm—will remain a steady 1:25. The resultant paralysis of choice has the unfortunate effect of merely enforcing the status quo. Who wants to risk seeing a potentially terrible group of unknowns when the guaranteed good show of blog-approved bands like Peter, Bjorn, and John is happening at the same time across town?
My own social anxiety tends to work in favor of the smaller groups. That is, as soon as I find myself surrounded by my peers, I experience an existential disgust that invariably forces me to move on to the next event—one step ahead of the vultures who remind me far too much of myself for comfort.
Nonetheless, there are some groups for which I will gladly endure the sweat, stink, and dread of the typical SXSW industry crowd. Some of them—lots of them, maybe—are from Orange County. However, the SXSW schedule lists only a few groups with the admirable self-confidence to actually claim OC residency. Works for me! I'll have plenty of free time to catch some other bands that probably won't show up at the Anaheim House of Blues anytime soon.
Here they are, in relative order of appearance:
Unfortunately described as "the brand new buzz band from the Eagle Rock side of Los Angeles" on the SXSW website, Sea Wolf's eponymous EP contains enough weepy, mildly ominous pop gems to inspire some excitement in advance of their debut album, which is supervised by uber-producer Phil Ek, a man who's had his thumb in the successful pie of The Shins and Modest Mouse. Standout track: "You're a Wolf"—a travel song with minor key string arrangements and ping-ponging space guitar that establishes Sea Wolf frontman Alex Brown Church as a bit of a hungry ghost, walking the earth looking for love, or at least a headlining slot at the Wiltern. In contrast to many of the other bands playing the festival, Sea Wolf has been spotted in Orange County, performing a well-received set at Detroit last year. Their 8 p.m. slot in Austin should serve them well; it's early enough in the evening for all but the most hardcore drinkers to be mostly aware and receptive to music that doesn't necessarily make them want to dry hump the person standing in front of them.
This band has toured so hard that frontman Zach Condon had to spend some time in the hospital for exhaustion—real exhaustion, not Lindsey Lohan exhaustion. I caught them last year at The Troubador and found that their Balkans-meets-Yann Tiersen longing moved me. They experienced a negative backlash when their album was praised by controversial tastemaking weblog Pitchfork, some people sour-graping that the 20-year-old Condon doesn't have the cred to be authentically enjoyed. Such reasoning seems inexplicable, until you remember that people are lame. To truly appreciate the band is to see them live. Listening to the music, one might imagine that Condon would be backed by the Klezmer All-Stars instead of a team of band kids, but there they were, glasses, braids and all. Standout track: "Closing Song"—to the best of my knowledge, available only on live bootlegs. Condon wails, "Hold on, hold on, while I return fire," speaking for the beleaguered everywhere for whom esprit d'escalier is the only esprit they know. Halfway through the song, all the instruments drop out for a few bars, leaving Condon alone to vigorously strum his ukulele while the crowd hoots in awe. You can practically hear the vigor being drained from the man.
Another band generating "buzz" with a healthy Internet following, Elvis Perkins creates music for those times when your depression just seems to make you more beautiful and deep than anyone else on the planet. These dirges are so sad they could make a kindergartener weep. When you run out of tissues, the band throws in a jaunty little tune like "May Day" to fuck with you. Elvis Perkins will appear immediately prior to Cold War Kids, about whom I'd write more if they needed my help. EP's standout track: "While You Were Sleeping," a lovely folk song about waking up. I'm a sucker for the Neutral Milk Hotel horn/singing saw combo, and here it comes, five minutes in, to spark the sense memory.
Old Time Relijun
Tuva by way of Olympia, WA, Old Time Relijun seems to have spent a lot of time listening to Captain Beefheart albums and having nightmares about the Bible. I can't listen to them very long when I'm home alone, but live is another story. Frontman Arrington de Dionyso channels some kind of demon from hell and skronks on a sax like nobody's business while Aaron Hartman (stand-up bass) and Jamie Peterson (drums) keep the shit together. Word on the street is Dionyso's a preacher's son, and the fact is he certainly has some Jesus howl, enabling his voice to span octaves that most musicians don't even know about. Standout track: "Cold Water," from their 2004 LP Lost Light. A relatively straightforward track for this band, the tune grooves on for more than eight frantic minutes, sounding like the kind of music you'd want to have playing in your head during a bar fight. I believe there is a cymbal crash on every other beat throughout this entire song.
Freedom rock from Canada, where they seem to be doing it better than we can manage. At their show opening for Magnolia Electric Company at the Echo last year, they played a better set than the headliners, which kind of pains me to say. Though I hate to do it, I'm going to be lazy and repeat what every other writer has mentioned—they sound like The Replacements covering Neil Young. Sorry, but they really do! Standout track: "My Old Jacknife"—a bouncy song that for about three seconds melodically recalls Willy DeVille's "Storybook Love" from The Princess Bride before erupting into a road tune about saying the hell with it and cutting shit up.
A band with more creative ideas in one song than most can come up with in an entire career, Menomena are playing the Barsuk records showcase late on the second night, where their complex arrangements will almost certainly result in blissful confusion for any tenacious drunkard that remains upright. Their newest release, Friend and Foe, has generated a lot of excitement, as it's one of the rare albums that's actually still interesting after several listens. Menomena create their music utilizing a computer program written by bandmate Brent Knopf, but after reading several articles that attempt to describe what it actually does, I still have no clue how it works. Something about loops. Anyway, the band claims they're sick of talking about it. I'll respect their wishes. Standout track: "Wet and Rusting"—yearning piano mixes with pitch-shifted guitars, frenetic drums, and swelling string samples to create an oddly optimistic song about getting through life when everything sucks.
The Mae Shi
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Los Angeles-based quartet often described as noise rock, though the tracks I've heard from their upcoming album (the title of which remains somewhat unclear) sound like New Pornographers' covers performed by Tripping Daisy's Tim DeLaughter backed by Deerhoof, which I realize might sound shaky, but completely works in practice. The Mae Shi underwent some lineup changes in 2006, which might explain the shift in direction, and then found themselves out of a label when Kill Rock Stars' affiliate 5RC went out of business. But the band soldiers on, and their live shows remain as stirring and energetic as their recorded output. Standout track: "Run to Your Grave." This track off their upcoming album has been making the rounds of music blogs and will probably win you over if you march in place and pump your fist in the air while you listen to it. The obligatory Casio tones kick off the song but are soon joined by a plaintive descending melody that tempers the irony and makes you feel a little guilty for the dumb smile you had on your face when the song first came on. "Scream, cry, pray, confess, God will do the rest," the band howls over the mounting tension of marching drum rolls until the soothing tones of an omnichord arrive to walk you home and let you know it's okay to cry.
I could tell you New Yorker Marnie Stern has three times the normal amount of fingers—that's right, that would be 30—and you'd probably believe me after listening to her debut album, In Advance of the Broken Arm. It sounds like it was recorded by a group of elves who grew up listening to nothing but Eddie Van Halen solos. Stern frequently overdubs her own vocals on the chorus, which can occasionally sound like Kidz Bop covering thrash metal. Stern wrote the songs by herself over a two-year period and was signed to Kill Rock Stars after sending in a demo tape. Shredding as part of KRS' showcase of female performers, along with local standouts Mika Miko, there won't be an unbloodied ear in the house. Standout track: "Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling"—"I'm not looking to find a pot of gold, I will paint you a picture that's inside my head," Stern sings and proceeds to guide the listener on a visualization, kind of like the ones I had to endure every time my high school would hire a motivational speaker to stir up the teens. Except Stern's doesn't make me feel emotionally molested. Representing each piece of her mind picture with a different melodic line, the pieces eventually coalesce as Stern unleashes her army of Marnies to join her for the song's headbanging hook.
Check in to blogs.ocweekly.com/music/ for live coverage of SXSW 2007 throughout the duration of the festival. We'll fight, drink, and sweat so you don't have to.