Thoughts on music - with a bit of photography - from an Austin fan of folk, Americana, and indie
On March 19, 2012, Arcade Fire spoke at the University of Texas at Austin about their efforts trying to help the people of Haiti. The group has been working with Partners In Health since 2007, donating to PIH $1 of every ticket sold and educating fans about the plight of Haiti’s citizens.
After the talk, the band played two songs from their 2004 debut album Funeral: “Haiti” (fittingly) and “Wake Up.”
I also had some fun with the iMovie app on my new iPad.
(I wanted to get this out before South By Southwest started, but events conspired.)
It’s here. The largest music festival in the world. Spanning four days/five nights and playing host to more than two thousand artists, it is a music lover’s ideal. Or so I hear. See, I’ve never been to South By Southwest (SXSW for those out there who appreciate the abbrievs), but I have heard the veterans speak of it with a reverence typically reserved for free breakfast tacos.
It’s also awesome because, unlike nearly every other major music festival, it doesn’t take place on giant stages where most of the crowd is a few lightyears away from the band. Rather, it is staged everywhere: bars (every single one of them), clubs, bike shops, churches, pizza parlors, record stores, houses, backyards, and street corners. Last night I saw a band playing in the back of a school bus. They loaded it up with people and drove off still playing. That is SXSW. Music everywhere.
You might now be asking, “How do I get at this glorious sonic heaven?” You have three options in increasing order of damage to your wallet: 1. Buy nothing 2. Wristband 3. Festival Badge
Let me start with the badge. It gets you into everything. For free. Done. If it’s happening, you can get in. (Exception: if the venue is at maximum occupancy; then no one gets in.) And you get to skip the lines that characterize the South By experience for the unruly badge-less masses. The catch: it’s like 700 big ones. Pre-tay steep if you ask this guy. Moving on from that prohibitive price point, we arrive at the lauded wristband option, my weapon of choice. Badges still own you, but you beat the people too cheap to buy anything and you don’t have to pay for any official event.
Lastly, you can abstain from making any purchase at all and strike out with only your charisma to discover what SXSW has to offer. To your advantage is the fact that almost everything during the day is free. Venues will host showcases, as they’re called, with lots of bands, few adequate sound checks, and (frequently) free beer. The downside is that most nocturnal showcases are badge/wristband only. So that’s less cool.
Alright, you’ve got your “ticket” (or not). Now what should you see? That’s the hardest question at SXSW. The right answer is “the best new band out there,” but finding that can be a bit daunting. I’ll describe what I did to prepare and also what I will be doing differently next year. A friend of mine started an online spreadsheet that he and others continuously updated with showcases that they found. I would go to the website of each one and RSVP for it. It doesn’t matter if you think you’ll go to it or not - don’t even worry about that. Just RSVP for everything so that if you wind up there you can get in. The venues don’t always use the RSVP list, but it can come into play as the space approaches capacity.
As the festival got closer and bands started publishing their set times and locations, I made a Google calendar and updated it with shows that I wanted to see. It’s impossible to see everything, so I tried to limit it to the ones I really didn’t want to miss. I later learned about sched.org, which has a whole host of official and unofficial SXSW shows and allows you to create a personalized calendar. I will likely be using that in the future.
That covers bands I already know. But what about discovering new bands? That’s really what SXSW is all about, after all. The primary mechanism here is random chance - happening upon a set that totally knocks your wristband off - but you can increase your odds by sampling as many bands as possible beforehand. This year I relied, as always, on NPR Music. Their best-tuned musical ears (those of Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton, Stephen Thompson, and Ann Powers) each listened to over 1,300 songs from bands playing at SXSW. Thompson then compiled a 100-song list of standouts, and the four of them recorded an hour-long discussion of their favorites on All Songs Considered. I listened to that podcast and a good portion of the 100 songs, but for the most part I simply went with their recommendations rather than listening and discerning on my own. Next year I’m going to do my homework well ahead of time and listen to as much music as I can.
What SXSW is? Check
How to see some music? Check
How to decide exactly what music you’d like to see? Check
Which brings us to the music I am really looking forward to. These are mostly bands I’ve liked for a while but have never had the opportunity to see live. Of course, there are a couple that really got me from NPR’s research.
Lost In The Trees - An orchestral folk band from Chapel Hill, NC, they are about to release their sophomore album, entitled A Church That Fits Our Needs. 2010’s All Alone In An Empty House was one of my favorites of that year, and I’ve been trying to see them in concert since. I should be set; they are playing many times over the course of the four days.
Typhoon - The Newport Folk Festival introduced me to this 13-piece Portlandian ensemble back in August. Despite the huge number of musicians on stage - which included two drummers, three horn players, and two violinists - they are remarkably tight, and their capacity for build is nearly unmatched in today’s indie rock scene. Thankfully they, too, are playing many shows.
Polica - This is one of my favorite new discoveries. They just formed back in September and released their first album, Give You The Ghost, in mid-February. Their sound is founded in electronica but spiced with post-rock influences, two drummers (there’s a trend here), and singer Channy Leaneagh’s beautiful, auto-tuned vocals.
Of Monsters and Men - I’ve said it for a while now: this band is gonna be huge. The Icelandic sextet is finally treating the States to a tour, with SXSW as the first stop. They are poppy folk rock of the highest caliber. And like many other bands, they are also playing tons of shows.
Now on to a few NPR recommendations.
Kishi Bashi - I was hooked after just one song. “Bright Whites” is happy, vibrant electro pop that, like much of that genre, is astoundingly catchy. Kishi Bashi is the project of K Ishibashi, a touring member of Of Montreal.
Ben Howard - Buoyant British folk in the vein of Nick Drake or, more recently, James Vincent McMorrow. This is his first jaunt across the pond, but I expect there will be many more to come.
Dry The River - Also from London, this folk rock quintet is destined for continual comparisons to Mumford & Sons. But a band could do worse. There are a lot of influences in their music; it’s centered around folk rock but there’s an almost post-punk aspect there as well. Very much hope to see them.
Some additional bands that I’m excited to check out: Horse Feathers, Sharon Van Etten, Daughter, Fun., Adam Arcuragi, Zola Jesus
I’ll do another post sometime next week that goes into my experiences over these four days: best shows, worst shows, surprises, and general SXSW craziness.
Currently on repeat: the new Sharon Van Etten record, Tramp. Alternating between serrated-edge rock that belies her pain-hewn folk foundation and fragile, gorgeous slow burners, this is a triumphant third effort from an ever more confident songwriter.
New Fanfarlo album streaming on NPR. Pop/rock/folk with experimental tendencies and lots of layers. Fun and catchy. Highlights include “Deconstruction” and “Tanguska.”
I’m so happy that the Shins are back. Five years after Wincing the Night Away, James Mercer is finally releasing a new album, entitled Port of Morrow. Better still, the super cool video for its first single, “Simple Song,” is available on iTunes as a free download. I love the concept for this video, and the song is classic Shins - in fact, I’m pretty sure a couple chord progressions were straight out of “The Celibate Life” and “Gone For Good.”
And finally, be sure to check out Sleigh Bells’ Reign of Terror, out today. Treats was a 2010 favorite, and now the duo of Derek Miller and Alexis (not Alison) Krauss are back with a sophomore effort that packs the biggest electro-noise-rock wallop of any band out there.
These are my ten favorite albums released in 2011. This list does not claim to represent this year’s “best” music, to the extent that that can even be discerned; rather, it is simply what I found myself returning to again and again.
I planned to keep it to ten, but because this is my blog and I can do whatever I like, I’m starting with a list of some albums that didn’t quite make the cut but are awesome nevertheless. In no particular order:
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine
St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Lisa Hannigan - Passenger
The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar
Feist - Metals
Other Lives - Tamer Animals
Wilco - The Whole Love
Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Now on to the top ten:
10. Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
As I’ve discussed previously, this album is unlike anything Sam Beam has done in the past. I love his earlier stuff - Our Endless Numbered Days was magnificent - but this album really resonated with me, despite its differences from Beam’s past work. The opener is an epic. The album as a whole is a fusion of traditions, mixing Americana and blues with styles reminiscent of 70s pop.
Song: “Big Burned Hand”
9. The Antlers - Burst Apart
I almost missed this one; I played it a few times earlier in the year and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t until I really gave it my full attention that I realized what the Antlers had accomplished. Lofty indie rock that positively glistens as it leaves your speakers.
8. The Head & The Heart - The Head & The Heart
Through fantastic harmonies and earnest, endearing songwriting, this Seattle band has risen very quickly from the pub scene to festival stages across the country. Their songs are folk pop at its best, sometimes stuttering from one melody to the next but always maintaining that same great feel.
Song: “Down in the Valley”
7. Wye Oak - Civilian
Wye Oak is a duo from Baltimore composed of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack. To appreciate their music you must first understand that the drums and keyboard parts are played by one person. Simultaneously. Stack drums with one hand (and both feet) and plays keys with the other. Knowing that, if you have a chance to see them live, do so. It’s quite awesome to watch. Moving on to the actual music, since first hearing this record I’ve felt that if everything were stripped away and Wasner given an acoustic guitar she would do very well as a folk singer. Despite the fact that she chose to rock instead, there is clearly a folk influence here among the touches of noise rock, which perhaps explains why I like this album so much.
6. Radical Face - The Family Tree: The Roots
A masterfully wrought, inviting folk album that is heavy on strings and pairs hints of Conor Oberst’s voice with Sufjan caliber songwriting (listen to the lyrics of “Family Portrait”). Though I can’t pinpoint exactly what defines some records as such, this is a perfect example of a “winter album” to me.
Song: “Family Portrait”
5. Typhoon - A New Kind of House
This record made it to number five on my list despite being just a 5-song EP, an impressive feat that speaks to just how much I completely love these songs. There are at least 11 people in this band, but their songs are so tight, so meticulously constructed and controlled. And by controlled I don’t mean restrained; their capacity for build is what makes this record such a great listen.
Song: “The Honest Truth”
4. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
It was around this time last year that I heard John Paul White and Joy Williams for the first time. “Barton Hollow” is a folk rock masterpiece - it was quite a while before I took that song off repeat - and the rest of the album is painfully beautiful. When these two sing they are in sync like no other duo I’ve heard. The awards they have earned are so well-deserved, and the fact that they have achieved such success entirely independent of a major label is a testament to the new structure of the music industry.
Song: “My Father’s Father”
3. Of Monsters and Men - My Head Is An Animal
I’m sort of cheating by putting this record on my list because it has actually only been released in the band’s native Iceland and not in the U.S. yet. I don’t care. It’s too good. Anthemic and terribly infectious, My Head Is An Animal may be my favorite example - among many, many examples - of Arcade Fire’s influence on indie rock. These songs perfectly combine folk rock with indie and continue today’s trend of male and female vocalists. Of Monsters and Men kick off their first U.S. tour at SXSW in March, and I will be doing whatever I possibly can to be at that show.
Song: “Six Weeks”
2. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
The Decemberists are one of my favorite bands of all time, and one need not look further than this record to know why. I think it may even have surpassed The Crane Wife as my favorite album of theirs. That is a big deal. As superb as Crane Wife is, this album’s perfect synthesis of rock, folk, and Americana was too much for it. It is not groundbreaking, drawing comparisons to early R.E.M. (Peter Buck plays on three of the tracks) and The Smiths, along with countless Americana artists, but that’s ok with me. I like that the Decemberists have taken these influences and produced something of their own. Side note: the follow-up EP, Long Live the King, is also not to be missed.
Song: “This Is Why We Fight”
1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Expectations for this record were higher than Vernon’s falsetto. And he delivered. From the very first note, it’s different; the bare, tender acoustic work that defined his initial success is replaced by electric guitar riffs of pure velvet and, soon thereafter, a full band. It’s not until later in “Perth,” when those machine gun drum beats start firing, that the listener learns the extent to which this one is not For Emma, both in style and in purpose. This one’s for Bon Iver. One constant across the two is, of course, Vernon’s voice, at times disparate and then blending in with the gorgeous instrumentation. Play “Calgary” and listen for the lyrics, with Vernon’s voice clear, passionate, and meaningful; or allow the vocals to submerge into the song like one staring at something out of focus, and the song takes on a stunning new form. To me, the essence of Bon Iver, Bon Iver is akin to a painting from an artist with a true mastery of color. Look closely and, though they are beautiful, it’s hard to see how the colors fit into the larger context. Step back and they meld together into something much greater.
A kindly YouTube user downloaded the audio of the Bon Iver video I posted earlier, cut it into separate tracks, and made it available here (blue download box).
I went back to the video and took the above screenshot for cover art. I felt the two hands represented the two musicians, facing each other and perfectly in sync (props to the videographer, of course). I also like the aesthetics of the segmented red line across the middle.
A friend of mine just sent me this link, pointing out the excellent cello bass line. Pretty cool electro-pop song from Swedish band Niki & The Dove, and I certainly agree on that cello. It makes the song. Turns out they’ll be at SXSW - gonna keep an ear out for their show(s).
Although they’re from Austin and have been around since 1999, I’ve only recently gotten into Shearwater. I listened to Rooks and The Golden Archipelago and loved them both. Jonathan Meiburg’s voice may take a little getting used to, but once you get there it’s magnificent.
Which brings me to the fact that NPR is streaming their new album. The first track gave me chills. Simply gorgeous. Whether you’re an old fan or have never heard them and can only think of Stillwater from Almost Famous, give this record a listen.
This Forbes article is an excellent discussion of the present intersection of music, (internet) piracy, and social media. It speaks to a feeling I’ve had for a while now that piracy, to an extent, may actually be a good thing. Yes, it initially takes money from musicians; that’s easy to quantify and is the easy argument. What’s more difficult to quantify is the boon to bands’ fan bases, both in terms of quantity and, more importantly, passion.
The Civil Wars are embracing this new shift and have found, like many of their successful contemporaries, a sweet spot of sorts between the traditional model and blatant piracy: have an absolutely killer live show and give some music for free, then let word of mouth take charge, fueled and abetted by your social media presence.
The article also gets into the accessibility aspect, and I think this quote perfectly summarizes that. This is the current state of music that I know and love:
"In a sense, we’re returning to the past, when artists and musicians were a more local phenomenon – and more diverse thanks to the grassroots nature of creative expression. There weren’t so much genres of music as there were regions of sound.
The difference is that now I can pretty easily tap into the music scene anywhere. That glorious audio-cuisine has gone global.”
I’d be curious to hear other thoughts on this.
2 years ago -
Catchy little tune from St. Paul’s Vicious Vicious. I love pretty much everything Martin Dosh does, especially his collaborations with Andrew Bird (which continue on Bird’s new album Break It Yourself), and this song is no different. There’s some great drumming going on here that works really well with the bassline.