Music Days 1 & 2: Rabid Blues-Punk, Americana, and a Whole Lot of Crooning
PopMattters gladly shoves its neck under the Guilloteens before getting buried alive under a huge bed sheet at Mae Shi and walloped by just a few legendary Americana artists: but it's the good kind of violence, we swear.
Fatal Flying Guilloteens, out of Houston, play an adrenalized, distorted, explosive kind of garage-punk blues that’s a little scary even on record. On stage, though, it’s unstoppable, brutal, violent...and pretty damned great. Not ten seconds into the show, frontman Mike Bonilla plummets into the audience, clutching two mics, eyes rolled up into his head as the crowd (luckily mostly large men at the front) pushes him back onto the stage. A few seconds later, he’s on stage in three-quarters of a backbend, his skinny body buffeted by the giant, distorted waves of sound coming off the amp. By the second song, he has climbed to the top of a pile of amps, the stack visibly teetering as he whoops and howls, head slammed up against the tent awning from a height of maybe ten feet. And really, the whole band is just as crazy, erupting into wild, siren-like blasts of pure guitar, cranking jittery, loud-as-jesus bass lines, and coming to screeching, annihilating dead stops. (JK)
Akron/Family’s Miles Seaton tipped me off to these guys, a North Carolina trio of unclassifiables who weave traditional folk (there’s a banjo in play), African rhythms, finger-picked blues, and even a little pop into their heterogeneous tunes. Oddball but fabulous, their tight harmonies and traditional instruments make some of their tunes sound like outtakes from O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Still, there’s a deep, goofy weirdness that sets them off from real folk. For instance, at one point, Megafaun decide that they need a backup choir, so they divide the crowd into three groups, assign each a note from a chord, and suddenly, we’re all singing in three-part harmony. It’s the kind of headlong, friendly optimism that’s hard to say no to, and it’s fun. Don’t all of us music writers secretly wish we could play or sing anyway? (JK)
Joe Ely / Photo by Jennifer Kelly
Joe Ely, a legendary Texas singer/songwriter, starts with “Letter to Laredo”, just his voice and the guitar at first, the guitar eventually thickening from a few splayed chords into more rhythmic strumming, the voice a wonderful, rough-edged instrument, well-worn-in and tested, but supple around the edges. Then, as the song goes on, Joel Guzman joins in, and if the accordion has in Guzman's own set been an instrument of pure joy, now it turns sad and thoughtful. Then it’s time for “All That You Need”, a bipolar sort of song where the verse is full of tragic images and the chorus full of triumph. For the last song, Ely calls Texas songwriter Ryan Bingham up to the stage to join him in Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner”. They switch off on vocals, Bingham growling out the sad verses in his sandpapery blues style, and Ely kicking in the more optimistic ones in a lighter, more melodic style. Meanwhile, Guzman, off to one side, adds sad flourishes and, at one point, elicits the sound of a truck horn from his red accordion. (JK)
Almost by accident, I walk into a show by a buzz-heavy alt.country band at an out-of-the-way bar on far west Sixth Street. Felice Brothers are an Americana-type band out of the Catskills, with a fiddle player who switches to washboard (actually an old wooden chair), the usual guitar/bass/drums, and a massively built accordion player who, today, is resplendent in a black cowboy hat and western vest. They launch into an exuberant mélange of roots rock, country, blues, and Cajun music that is almost like sunshine itself. The vibe is loose and goofy and possibly a little bit loaded, and the accordion player introduces a song saying, “This is a song called ‘I’m Saved.’ It ain’t true, but it’s a good song.” And indeed it is, a down-and-out look at salvation that somehow rhymes “stealin’” with “tequila”. Their songs are about hardship, making do, failure, and broken families, and yet, they have a rollicking heft to them, as if we will all get through this, somehow, some way. (JK)
The Young Republic are befitting of their name. They amble onstage looking like extras from Kid Nation, all threadbare clothes and sweet, cherubic faces. With eight members and instruments as varied as steel guitar, flute, and violin, they’re either going to be wonderful or terrible, I initially think, and am delighted to report they’re the former. Their style is stunningly divergent, yet cohesively held together. “Girl from the Northern States” expertly borrows from early Belle and Sebastian, while the song that follows steals from Pavement’s faux-country styling (they even mention ‘gold sounds’ in the lyrics). “Idiot Grin” starts off as early ’80s English new wave, while their final song of the set mixes all their disparate styles together to great effect. While other bands who utilize this hodge-podge approach often fail to pull it off, The Young Republic makes each song its own, using genres as creative stepping stones for its own musical outpourings.
The star of the show, undoubtedly, is frontman Julian Saporit, who has the ability to begin the set sounding like Stuart Murdoch and finish it bellowing his way through a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Isis”. As a group, the Young Republic are rollicking and rolling, sweet and sincere, slightly angry yet achingly heartfelt -- sentiments summed up by Saporit when he tells us, “Love each other and rock out.” As the name suggests, the Young Republic are a fledgling band -- pledge your allegiance now. (KP)
- "Paper Ships" MP3
These two brothers from Scotland made one of last year’s scruffiest, most endearing pop records, full of rackety drums and anguished romantic cries. They’ve been accumulating members since. In addition to core guitarist/singer Scott Hutchison and his brother and drummer, Grant Hutchison, who started Frightened Rabbit, the band now sports an extra guitarist and bass player. It’s still the two brothers who make the show, grunting and grimacing and straining to deliver their mostly new songs. They play their instruments like they’d like to destroy them, Scott slashing away at his six-string, Grant punishing his drumheads without mercy. The first three songs are from Heads Roll Off, their new album out on FatCat, but they slip in a few from the debut (“Square One”, “Be Less Rude”), closing with the frantic, wonderful, jaggedy-sweet “The Greys”. Who needs the blues when you’ve got Frightened Rabbit? (JK)
- "Modern Leper" MP3
By the time These New Puritans finish their set, with the bass player playing percussion, his arms entangled with the drummer as if performing a wedding toast with drum sticks, I have gone from apathy to awe. Like their name suggests, this English four-piece certainly looks puritanical, what with their close-cropped hair and angelic, clean-shaven faces. Even the lone girl in the group, standing at the back and playing keyboards, is unadorned and dressed in pale colors. Collectively, they look like they might have needed their parents to sign a permission slip for this field trip.
Maybe they did; this is their first show on American soil. The sound they purvey firmly fits into the post-punk, dance-punk pigeonhole that skittering drums and angular guitars grant access to. But These New Puritans actually work best as a band when layering beats and feedback, slowly building from them, utilizing their post-punk sensibility while firmly entrenching it in the avant-garde and off-kilter as well. While their music is crisp and clear, lyrically they are indecipherable, if just as jarring. Utilizing dueling vocals that are part spoken, part shouted, and only sometimes sung, the two front “men” (I use that word liberally) spit their words out with a youthful vitriol that makes me want to know what they’re saying. Theirs is a disaffected demeanor that, despite their clean-cut looks, suggests These New Puritans are anything but. (KP)
- "Elvis" MP3
In a perfect world, pamphlets containing Scroobius Pip’s lyrics would be dropped on all nations. During “Thou Shalt Always Kill”, he declares (while holding a bible) “thou shalt not read the NME,” and “thou shalt not judge Lethal Weapon by Danny Glover.” He’s part insightful, part playful; part preacher, part teacher. For a band bereft of any real stage presence -- the only instrument is a Mac -- this London-based duo puts on the best show of SXSW so far. Mixing electro beats and samples (including a Radiohead riff), Dan Le Sac provides the backing for Scroobius Pip’s inner monologues, which mix rap and hip hop with Beat poetry; he even performs one song a cappella.
While the songs, which veer from hard-hitting beats to lolloping, piano-accentuated ballads, are strong enough to carry the band on record, it’s the live environment in which they excel. Scroobius Pip, despite his general anonymity on the streets of Austin, is already a star. He carouses into character for certain songs, at various points donning glasses and a tie, unfurling a poster of the periodic table, and sitting at a desk like a news reporter. But it’s his lyrics, which shift from sarcastic to serious to earnestly sincere, that make this duo so important. Towards the end of “Thou Shalt Always Kill”, he declares that the Beatles and several other acts, including The Pixies and Nirvana, were “just bands.” It’s a stirring statement. I’m sure they would disagree, but Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip is more than just a band. (KP)
“Can you guys on the sidewalk hear me?” inquires Matthew Houck, who records as Phosphorescent, to the gathering crowd still waiting to get in. “We’ll do our best to drag our feet a little more,” he adds. It’s hard to see how he could. Backed by a three-piece band, Houck’s haunting songs are slow already -- drawn out, yes, but never dull. They stretch and soar, stirring up eerie atmospherics that evoke memories good and bad. With Will Oldham edging ever more towards traditional country arrangements, film roles, and Kayne West videos, Phosphorescent seems primed to take over the mantle of the cracked, country crooner for the hipster cognoscenti. While Houck’s voice does bear an uncanny resemblance to Oldham’s, his songs have a more magical, otherworldly feel. In the live setting, it’s a reverential timelessness that they capture, producing a cacophony of sound and swelling sentiments under a ceiling of stars. If there really is a stairway to heaven, I hope these songs soundtrack every last step. (KP)