The massive music industry festival that is South-by-Southwest fell into some bad timing this year, coming right after the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis, and right before the United States and her allies joined the fight in Libya by bombing Muammar Gaddafi (Day Two of the festival was also St. Patrick’s Day, but SXSW knew that going in…). It all threatened to make the festival, and music in general, seem irrelevant, what with the world going to hell in a handbasket. But ensconced in the cocoon that was downtown Austin, on your smart phones and Twitter, with wristbands and free drinks galore, SXSW proved to once again be an engrossing, all-encompassing musical clusterfuck of an experience.
Hit up the Thirsty Planet Brewing party during the day at Skinny’s, then Japan & more at night, with burgers & waffle fries in between.
[Note: QRO had a number of correspondents at SXSW this year; this is just the Day One recap from Robin Sinhababu; click here for Ted Chase’s Day One recap, click here for Amanda Krieg’s, and click here for Tammi J Myers’]
Thirsty Planet Brewing party @ Skinny’s Ballroom
Muchos Backflips, 2:55pm
This Austin band, whose name means "many backflips" in Spanish, dressed sharp for the day show. Their live sound surprised me in two ways: their set had little of the note-riffing and consequent good guitar definition of the recordings I’d heard; and the two sax parts blended with the rest of the band much better than on record, making the brass seem like less of an appendage. There are several ways they could arrange themselves onstage, but I think their chosen adjacent-saxmen layout was well advised.
I’d seen their name on bills around town, but hadn’t seen the band. Check them out if they come to your town, and if the cover isn’t too expensive.
The Lovely Sparrows, 3:50pm
Where the Skinny’s stage cohered the sound of Muchos Backflips, it dissipated the sound of The Lovely Sparrows. They had a decent bass and drumming, even when using light rhythms, but the two guitars, keys, and flute often sounded disorganized; more was less. It got worse when they played harder, as the treblier guitar, flute, and keyboards sounded flimsy against the lower rhythmic base.
Up front, singer-guitarist Shawn Jones was earnest and effective. His guitar was mixed too low, the only weakness in the good live sound the band enjoyed. They have a Decemberists-like thing going on, so see them if you like the Decemberists (QRO album review). You’ll save some money and irritation in the process.
Stereo Is a Lie, 4:45pm
Do you ever enjoy seeing and hearing a rock band for the first time, only to go have a great and disgusting meal of burgers, wings, and waffle fries with your editor, go to more shows, walk home, go to sleep, wake up for work the next day, go from work to the gym, eat your shift meal and take a short nap in your car, go to more shows, and later listen to the band online and think that they’re not that great?
My first impression of these British-looking Austinites was that they were a good, solid, hard-charging rock band. The drumming is mechanical, but rock steady and with more than enough power. Guy’s eyes looks like there’s not a thought in his head other than killing the drums, too. Marcus Piña’s bass is similarly steady, but too much like a second rhythm guitar; some cool lines would have improved the tunes. The keyboardist smartly adds texture and harmony instead of going for flimsy melodies. Both guitars are played well, especially on the singer-guitarist Glynn Wedgewood’s rhythm parts.
As for his singing, it sounded like a cross between Bends-era Thom Yorke and Noel Gallagher, but I liked it: he’s got a lot of energy, and you can make out lyrics through the din, not often possible at this volume. Piña’s backing vocals sound deeper, and they put some more muscle behind Wedgewood on some verses.
But listening to them online, it’s not just the singer that reminds me of Noel Gallagher. They totally sound like recent Oasis in ‘rock’ mode, with dull melodies, no groove, mediocre crooning, and the switch stuck on anthem mode.
They did a rock star move at the end, walking off one by one with their instruments still on stage and ringing out. Of course, they had to come back one by one and turn them off.
I’d go see them again, especially if I knew it was going to be loud. Since I’ve given them a mixed review here, I’ll finish the same way: their drum kit looks cool, with the floor tom up front and above the kick, but skinny pants look silly if you’re going to flop around and dance on stage. Looks like you’re skinny and naked, or something.
SXSW showcase @ Headhunters
Osaka’s Ydestroyde has been a trio and a quintet, but now it’s down to singer-keyboardist Synzo, who makes a huge racket. Beats and synths spill chaotically from his Vestax mixer as if you were listening to a bunch of Jason Forrest mash-ups at the same time. Most of it seems prerecorded, with a few live elements here and there. Synzo handed off one of his boards to a spectator during the last song, and it didn’t seem to affect the music much.
He’s entertaining when he sings, usually just repeating one or two phrases. Even these are sometimes prerecorded, which he ridicules by appearing to lip-synch them. It’s a cool spectacle, so go see it if there’s other good stuff on the bill.
This band’s from Sekimachikita. That’s in Tokyo. They’ve got Haruhiko Higuchi on bass and vocals, and Masumi Sakurai behind the drum kit. Higuchi also delivered indecipherable banter between songs. During the songs, they both play fast and furious. It’s an entertaining show that I recommend you go see.
Higuchi’s basic tone is very good, and then he’s got a well-chosen pile of effects that he mostly stayed away from as he danced around in baggy pants. His dancing, and to some extent his playing, follows Sakurai, so maybe it makes sense that they set up facing each other. Her drumming is strong, quick-handed, and uses the whole kit. Actually, one of their better tunes changed up the rhythm a bit; she played a tight, tricky snare-cowbell beat as Higuchi tapped his riffs instead of strumming and picking them.
I haven’t heard their recordings, but the songs are so tonally and structurally simple and riff-based that I bet a lot is lost when you can’t see them.
Animals As Leaders, 10pm
This D.C. act enjoyed a big crowd, including a couple dozen folks watching and listening outside from the bridge by Sixth and Sabine, but I didn’t get it. The songs are built on lots of emotionless, semi-technical tapping and note-riffing a-la Liquid Tension Experiment. Even if I really enjoyed watching, say, shredding videos, they’d still be a tough sell because the riffs don’t seem that interesting or difficult. Actually, it sounds like the tunes sit in the same key for long periods, as if they’re just playing scales as fast as possible. The drummer doesn’t help by riding on his china. That’s something you’d better have a good reason for, and I don’t see one.
They seemed into what they were doing, as did the surprising-looking crowd, but I don’t recommend seeing them. Go to the gym, or try cooking something you haven’t made before. If you don’t know how to cook, just start with eggs.
SXSW showcase @ The Ale House
Easy Action, 11pm
Michigan’s John Brannon is definitely still "Mr. Intense", but the other three guys in Easy Action matched him neither with their stage presence nor with their playing. The drummer swung big, but the guitar and bass players took it a little easy for my taste, making the slow songs the better ones. Without intense jams to back them up, Brannon’s vocals and act seem more contrived than they are. See them if you haven’t seen Brannon sing before, otherwise go to Tamale House and get them on whole wheat.
Brannon was a sight all the way through. At the start, when his bandmates were on stage and appeared ready to go, he was wandering around in the front of the club for some reason. The men’s room is up front there, so maybe I shouldn’t speculate so much. During the show, he spit on the stage a few times. Why would you do that? I guess you have too much saliva or phlegm for yelling? And after the last chord, he got off the stage and stood in the front row of the crowd, looking at the band as if he’d been a spectator the whole time.
Hometapes showcase @ Skinny’s Ballroom
All Tiny Creatures, 12am
When I saw All Tiny Creatures at SXSW in 2009 (QRO recap), they were a different band. In two years, Ben Derickson’s drumming has become less motorik and more malleted, the band has become more pleasant but a little less groovy, and Tom Wimcek has grown a beard, apparently losing some weight in the undoubtedly strenuous process.
The music was good overall, but I was a little disappointed. With how many cool little things are going on in the music, you’d think it would add up to something greater, but it’s just good. Go see them if they come to your town, especially if they’re going to play that song with the cool riff that ends a bit prematurely but is still smart. They’re really good with repetition, but I don’t think that tune, the first track on their new album, is one of their better uses of it. They just don’t develop it enough.
Their sound was lush, with good live guitar, keyboard, and laptop sounds, and some real ambiguity at times about where they were coming from. At their best, the interplay of sounds was great, like when processed vocals harmonized and did call-and-response with straight vocals. They also paired malleted drumming in step with clicky keyboard rhythms that effectively replaced the attack of the drums.
At other times, the broad palette worked against them. Interstitial loops that no one appeared to be generating live only made the performance seem more artificial. And when both guitarists put their instruments down to play keyboards, the band lost some groove.