Music Day 1: Dream Pop and Dance Disasters

Terry Sawyer

Annie put in an enervating performance while relative old-timers, Irving, briefly bring the rock.

South by Southwest has managed to make the music even more attention-fractured friendly this year. With several split-level venues staggering bands on the half hour, it's more possible than ever to treat the musicians like the world's finest tapas bar. With such a feast of variety, it's hard not to surrender to the frequent fluxes of the crowds. I loved wandering through the jammed streets catching snippets of foreign language and looking at the style parade on display. The full frontal bang combover seems popular this year as does anything that looks like Vince Neil trying to dress like Joaquin Phoenix trying to dress like Johnny Cash. Even second generation Xerox's can be hot with the right black jeans and eyeliner.

Though I fully understand all the philosophical objections to hopping from band to band, I also know that's it's difficult to remember how high and mighty you are when you're actually presented with the opportunity for instant gratification. I don't feel robbed of anything for all my wandering, since I gave each band their respectful due before slipping onto to something else. Day One provides the best opportunity to move with that much spontaneity, since, despite the huge crowds already assembled, many do not begin their SXSW experience until Thursday, the official beginning for the bi-coastal elites.

"Drop You Vivid Colours": MP3

Luminous Orange
Genre: Rock
Hometown: Yokohama JAPAN

Wednesday, March 15 -- 8:00 p.m. Habana Calle 6 -- (709 E 6th St)

I have to repeat a criticism that I've leveled against the festival in previous years that its designers have little respect for the artists and their music. While I expect rampant commercialism as the background noise of living in our culture, I can't help but bristle when a music festival doesn't much care if you can even hear the band. The venues deserve their fair share of the blame for shoving artists on tiki torch bar patios, pool halls, and any other compressed space with enough flat surfaces. I fully expect to come one year and have to crowd around a bathroom stall to hear the latest buzz-worthy singer-songwriter. Both Luminous Orange and Rachel Goldstar played a venue where a single glass door separated the bands. Every time nature called or someone needed another shot of Herradura, blowback from the outside band trickled in. Since the bands labored on, wincing politely at the imposition, I figured I should as well.

It's interesting to hear music that you adored in high school, coming back for its second incarnation. I can honestly say that I thought that shoegazer staples like Lush, My Bloody Valentine, and Ride were spent phenomena. But with bands like M83 and artists like Ulrich Schnauss finding ways to make the sound both fresh and relevant again, I guess it's something to be able to say that I knew Kevin Shields when he was "this tall". Tokyo's Luminous Orange have learned much from the mistakes of the genre, which at its worst was a limp medley of ways to make a guitar sound like a seashell on your ear.

Luminous Orange have added the slightest sliver of aggression into the mix as well as some light-as-a-feather vocals that bring to mind the Cocteau Twins at their Christmas crinkle best. With a muscular rhythm section punching through the feedback swirls, there's more forward momentum in this band than there ever was in any Slowdive song where the effects pedals often bleached out any semblance of structural artistry. But they've kept the hugeness of sound, the enveloping haze. You could hear melodies and the chords have just enough watercolor tint to make a warm, woozy cocoon.

"Christmas Day": MP3

Rachel Goldstar
Genre: Pop
Hometown: Austin TX

Wednesday, March 15 -- 9:00 p.m. Habana Calle 6 -- (709 E 6th St)

Since I never give credit where credit is due, I must admit that SXSW seems to be getting friendlier to the idea of grouping bands on bills that might actually exist in the real world. This absolutely makes a crucial difference in audience composition, since people with wristbands frequently stake out a venue for the evening so that they can avoid ending up permanently in line.

Rachel Goldstar and the Colorforms fit well alongside Luminous Orange. It was like seeing two vastly different interpretations of the same piece. Though they seem to share some of the same obvious touchstones, they come to vastly different conclusions. For Goldstar, all that foggy excess of shoegazing provides an opportunity for tight, easily sculpted sound to frame her songs. The band uses all the blurry atmospherics as minor calligraphic emphases. Unlike the original bands who seemed to have acted as muse, the Colorforms bring a dirgy, dirty bottom to the style, especially with basslines that take heaving downward steps and drums that, at times, sound almost woundedly martial. Goldstar's voice has a deep, deliberative intensity that glides to the bottom of every song. While some of the better parts of their subtlety got lost in the revolving door blasts of outside noise, there was enough understated beauty to keep me straining to hear every carefully crafted nook.

Say Hi to Your Mom
Genre: Rock
Hometown: Brooklyn NY

Wednesday, March 15 -- 8:30 p.m. Habana Calle 6 Patio -- (709 E 6th St)

While Luminous Orange and Rachel Goldstar both exemplified the way to "rock out" without the obvious hallmarks of doing so, Say Hi to Your Mom is one of the most concave acts I've ever seen live. I've enjoyed them before on CD, but after seeing them in person, I may have to evaluate even those reserved appreciations. Eric Elbogen sounds so uninvolved in his performance that I doubt he'd mind if you vacuumed around him on stage. Even his body language suggested indifference as if the songs passed through him with no work of his own like a malarial chill.

This is the kind of music that makes "indie pop" a perjorative term for both its self-minimization and the fashionably cute and coy toybox constructions. If indie rock is a reaction to the masculinist clichés of traditional rock and roll, then Say Hi to Your Mom is that reaction taken to a purely ironic extreme. When I hear him talk of ordering Pad Thai without the MSG in a love song, I get the impression that these are some of the most calculated sensitivities imaginable, the sort of thing someone might come up with to seduce your average JANE reader.

Genre: Pop
Hometown: Bergen NORWAY

Wednesday, March 15 -- 10:30 p.m. Eternal -- (418 E 6th St)

I can live with the reality that some bands are studio acts. To me, it doesn't necessarily make you less of an artist if you can't pull off in a performance what you pull off on a record. They are two different mediums and record producers deserve their own fair share of artistic acclaim for being able to manipulate the sounds of instruments and humans in the way that they do.

As you might have guessed, the preceding paragraph was my way of softening the reality of my opinion about seeing Annie live. I find her unabashed embrace of tinny Tom Tom Club pop a not-so-guilty bedroom dancing pleasure, but seeing her live was pure gutting discomfort. Granted, part of the reason the show was so farcically bad came from sound problems. You could barely hear her sing and when you could it sounded like Brigette Nielson reciting touch-tone phone menus. The stage had her lit up like an egg white, a glaring, unforgiving scream of illumination that emphasized how spare the stage looked with her DJ and a drummer/guitarist. No aspect of her set ever seemed to match up well. The beats would drop out to a hollow minimum and her voice would suddenly seem foolishly huge and flat. I kept waiting for some aspect of her stage persona to render me immune to the collapsing surface of the music, but instead she pogo-sticked in place and pointed her finger at the audience in a way that reminded me of a Jane Fonda workout video my sister used to do. She did those same calorie-burning moves to the Jackson's "Can You Feel It?". Thankfully, the bratwurst stand was only a block away.

"Are You The One?": MP3

The Presets
Genre: Electronic
Hometown: Melbourne AUSTRALIA

Wednesday, March 15 -- 11:30 p.m. Eternal -- (418 E 6th St)

For everything that Annie's minimalism lacked, the Presets superseded in dramatic, sleazy fashion. With just two people on keyboards and drums, they blasted through the club with basslines that felt like barrels rolling over top of me. It's difficult to get a handle on their sound which has some of the sharp and skuzzy beat sutures of electroclash mixed with everything from Gary Numan to the "Madchester" antics of the Happy Mondays. They kept the show revved at that dangerous clip that, if you're listening to it in your car, makes you unconsciously press the pedal deep into the floorboard.

Julian Hamilton has one of those voices that reject euphony, like Mark E. Smith or Fred Schneider but far sexier than either of them. He has the stage presence of someone who might pin you against a wall in an alley and start tonguing you: it's brazen, regally territorial, and good nasty.

Like the Chemical Brothers, they manage to sound like one of the loudest, hugest rock bands you've ever heard; you could trace the band's impact in the massive demand to dance that brushfired into every corner of the club. Even I, completely averse to public displays of unscripted movement, twitched my ass once or twice. Maybe three times. The Presets should definitely find their way onto your nether region mix tape this year, the perfect band for impure thoughts and the actions that make them worth it.

"Situation": MP3

Genre: Rock
Hometown: Silver Lake CA

Wednesday, March 15 -- 12:00 a.m. The Velvet Spade Patio -- (912 Red River St)

SXSW has plenty new musicians on block, even people who've barely played a handful of shows. Especially in the age of the MP3 blog, bands can reach critical mass before they've even had to prove anything. I don't mean to sound like your dad, but bands used to have to make albums and tour before they garnered undiluted critical praise. So I was happy to end my evening with a seasoned, mature and incredibly gifted nightcap in the form of Irving.

I have no idea why Irving isn't one of the hugest bands in band in the world. While many people share some of their inspirations (the Kinks, the Byrds, the Beach Boys) few people can actually hold their own in synthesizing those rock legends. I'll admit that I rolled my eyes at their prima donna sound check which seemed interminably fussy. Not to mention that because of the "trains on time" precision of the SXSW machine, the longer a band sound checks, the less they play.

But once they started in, I could completely understood why it was important for them to be in perfect sync. Irving is one of those rare bands where each musician seems at the top of their game and what they make musically, they make collaboratively. They consciously shift the lead vocal emphasis to avoid creating the distraction of "front man" syndrome and because each of the singers can more than proficiently sing his own songs. Whether in harmonizing with melted "Mr. Tambourine Man" ease or bursting into staggering layered wall of rock, Irving put on a performance that's a hot rod work of musical art in its own right. Cut short by its own desire to get it right, it was still handily the best performance I've caught this year.

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