Join me after the jump for a collection of photos that I took on Day 3 (Sunday) of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Photos are arranged by set time. They are also available in higher resolution on Facebook. Check out my full recap of the day, as well as all the rest of the coverage by clicking here.
Have you checked the weather forecast for Pitchfork this weekend? I have. Partly sunny skies, with temperatures in the upper 70’s and low 80’s for all three days. In other words, it’s looking to be a perfect weekend, weather-wise. Make sure you wear sunscreen! That’s a top priority. Also, you might want to be aware of what you are and are not allowed to bring with you onto the festival grounds. The last thing you want is to wait in line at the gate, only to be turned away because you brought a folding chair or something. Check out the rules concerning approved/prohibited items, along with policies related to photography/recording and other important bits of info. Also, are you aware that there’s a record fair, poster fair and craft fair all on the grounds of Union Park? Yes, this festival is about more than the performances and the food/drink necessary to keep you alive. Do some digging, especially if you’ve never attended before, so you can plan ahead. Speaking of planning ahead, here’s your preview guide for the music on Sunday. As I’ve mentioned previously, the artists are paired according to the hour of their time slot. I’ve included a little bit of information about each, and my official recommendations are denoted with a **. In case you missed them, here are links to the Artist Guide (aka playlist), Friday preview and Saturday preview. Stay informed, stay protected and stay hydrated!
Speedy Ortiz [Blue Stage, 1:00]**
Mutual Benefit [Green Stage, 1:00]
Sunday is the day with the most artist conflicts for me personally, and it starts immediately with Speedy Ortiz and Mutual Benefit. Stylistically speaking, the two bands are pretty different. Speedy Ortiz is throwback 90’s garage rock, in a style somewhat similar to Veruca Salt or The Breeders. Their album Major Arcana was one of last year’s finest, and they’ve already followed it up with the Real Hair EP. Speedy Ortiz are a pretty great live band as well. If you’re in the mood for some distorted rock and roll in the early afternoon hours of Sunday, check them out. Of course if you’re attending the festival all three days, by Sunday you might be pretty worn out already. Maybe you’d prefer to ease into the day with something you can just kind of sit down and enjoy. This is where Mutual Benefit comes in. Their album Love’s Crushing Diamond was one of my absolute favorites from last year, reviving the carefully orchestrated folk sound that was largely propagated by Sufjan Stevens several years back. The record is so warm and comforting. I’m not sure if it’s ideal festival material as you bake in the hot sun, but with a good breeze and some shade it could be quite lovely. I’m putting my vote towards Speedy Ortiz here only because of their energy, but honestly you can’t go wrong showing up early for either of these two bands.
DIIV [Red Stage, 1:45]
Perfect Pussy [Blue Stage, 1:55]**
The two bands performing in this time slot share a fascinating commonality that you might not realize. While the styles of music they play are very different, both of them craft songs based around sonic textures and the emotions that they can inspire. For DIIV, it’s about guitar-based dream pop melodies that drive forward with unflinching confidence. For Perfect Pussy, it’s about hardcore punk rock that’s so ear-piercingly loud that you believe the world might just be on fire. Both bands have lead vocalists, but you can barely make out what they’re saying on every song, either due to extreme reverb or simply being drowned out by everything else. The safe pick here is to go and see DIIV. Their 2012 debut album Oshin is pretty incredible and surprisingly accessible. They’re also working on new material, so expect them to try out a track or two on the crowd. Of course Pitchfork isn’t about safe. Having seen Perfect Pussy perform earlier this year, I can honestly tell you it was one of the loudest, most intense 18 minutes of my life. But there’s a brilliance and a sense of catharsis to it, largely in how the band legitimately gives you every last ounce of themselves on stage. If you get your hands on a lyric sheet, you would know that singer Meredith Graves is a true poet and she sings about some extremely heartwrenching stuff. Even if you can’t hear what she’s saying, you can FEEL it. Perfect Pussy’s set is likely to send a number of people running in the opposite direction. Those that stay will likely be rewarded with one of the best performances of the entire weekend. Bring earplugs specifically for this.
Deafheaven [Green Stage, 2:30]**
Isaiah Rashad [Blue Stage, 2:50]
Pitchfork likes to have a token metal band or two in the lineup every year, and for all practical purposes Deafheaven is that singular entity for 2014. But oh my what an entity they are. Last year’s Sunbather was probably the best metal album of the year, and certainly a top contender for best of the decade. It’s a 60-minute masterpiece that moves beyond what might be regarded as traditional metal and into the territory of post-rock and shoegaze without even blinking an eye. In other words, they reached across genre lines and managed to capture the attention and imaginations of a far larger group of music fans. With what looks to be an incredible set at Pitchfork, they’ll likely succeed in turning a whole lot more people onto their unique sound. If you’re not into loud guitars, you’re of course always welcome to check out Isaiah Rashad and his unique brand of hip hop. Much like a lot of the other hip hop artists on the lineup this year, Rashad stands out because he’s not afraid to get very emotional and confessional on his tracks. So instead of popping bottles of Cristal with some girls in a club to celebrate, you’re sitting alone in the middle of the night with a glass of whiskey, worried about personal crises or world issues. Outside of topical elements, the guy is a genuinely talented MC who can really string together a verse in a unique and impressive way. Both of these artists are great choices, so go with the one you might enjoy the most.
Earl Sweatshirt [Red Stage, 3:20]**
Dum Dum Girls [Blue Stage, 3:45]
It’s some kind of miracle that Earl Sweatshirt is performing at this festival. Just about a week ago, he announced that he was cancelling his remaining tour dates due to exhaustion. Initially that included his set at Pitchfork, but in the end he decided to honor the Chicago shows he had booked. There were probably some legal threats, and maybe even a bit of begging required to convince him, but he relented in the end. If you’re concerned that we may not be getting Earl Sweatshirt at his best, that’s sound logic. Ultimately though, even if he’s only operating at about 75% of his normal capacity he’ll still be worth checking out. His album Doris is proof of that. Plus, he’s still a teen barely old enough to drive, so I’m sure he can bounce back pretty quickly. When it comes to Dum Dum Girls, I’m a fan. They started out as this lo-fi garage rock band in a similar class with Vivian Girls, and have since evolved into a clean-cut pop-rock band with serious synth-pop leanings. They’ve had their songs featured in commercials, TV shows and movies, yet retreat from the spotlight just as quickly as they stepped into it. These days, the band is both pretty easy on the ears and pretty easy on the eyes. Interpret that however you’d like. I was all set to recommend them over an exhausted Earl Sweatshirt, but then I remembered about the complaints. It seems frontwoman Dee Dee Penny has had some vocal troubles for awhile now, and so their live shows can be a little hit-or-miss as a result. I’m holding out hope it’s going to be great, but can’t give them my full endorsement at this point. The risk factor is simply too high.
ScHoolboy Q [Green Stage, 4:15]
Jon Hopkins [Blue Stage, 4:45]**
ScHoolboy Q is a key part of what’s commonly referred to as Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Hippy” crew, which is basically a collection of talented rappers who are working to reinvent West Coast hip hop. Over the last few years, they’ve been doing just that, and Q is one of the most talented of the bunch. What I find most fascinating about him are the levels of contradiction in his work. His 2012 album Habits & Contradictions seemed to actively point them out, and then this year’s follow-up Oxymoron only pushed that idea further. Unlike many of the rappers on the Pitchfork lineup this year, Q is equally at home talking about the dangers and the dark side of gang life as he is celebrating it with wanton abandon. One minute he’s depressed about the street violence killing his friends, and the next he’s out on the corner selling drugs and essentially being part of the problem. These are largely characters and fictional stories that Q puts together, and in all honesty it’s made for a fascinating dichotomy. It will be intriguing to see which side of him he chooses to favor for the Pitchfork crowd. As far as Jon Hopkins goes, he’s also the sort of artist that shows off two very different sides of his personality. The man is a classical composer, producer and well-known keyboardist, working with everyone from Imogen Heap to Brian Eno to Coldplay, and that largely informs the sort of music he makes on his own. Think of it as electronica with a twist, because instead of simply chopping together samples of audio on a laptop or touch pad, Hopkins throws in splashes of keyboards here, or an orchestral section there. The results can be light, airy and fun, but there’s also a much darker and aggressive side he’s able to show off, in particular on his last album Immunity, which was one of last year’s best releases. In a festival setting, expect that sonic diversity to play particularly well, as one minute you’ll be relaxing in the shade while a glistening and summery track breezes by, and the next you’ll be up and dancing furiously, suddenly inspired by a hard-hitting beat. Sounds like a lot of fun to me. How about you?
Real Estate [Red Stage, 5:15]**
Majical Cloudz [Blue Stage, 5:45]
I’ve seen Real Estate perform in festival settings a couple of times before (including once at Pitchfork), and their particular brand of relaxed indie rock provides a very natural soundtrack to the day. If you can find a shady spot in the grass somewhere to just chill out and stare up at the sky, you’ll never want to get up again because all feels right with the world. Over the course of three albums now, Real Estate have been perfecting this sound, and it’s now reached a peak thanks to the nearly perfect Atlas record from earlier this year. It’s going to be a genuine pleasure hearing them perform the new stuff. Of course it could all go horribly wrong too, because if you’re stuck standing around in the hot sun somewhere, their lackadaisical style might not be enough to distract you from the pools of sweat building up across your body. It can’t be worse than going to see Majical Cloudz though. Don’t get me wrong, I love Majical Cloudz and their debut record Impersonator. The thing is, their music is completely allergic to sunlight, heat, and large crowds. Seriously, all of their songs are very slow, and so intensely personal in nature that an outdoor festival is the antithesis of where you should witness their performance. Devon Welsh is such an intense guy on stage too, and his ability to pull you into his dark and disturbed world is what makes every single Majical Cloudz performance so special. To witness that at 5:45 in the afternoon with the hot sun overhead? The power and intensity has to get stripped away, right?
Slowdive [Green Stage, 6:15]**
DJ Spinn [Blue Stage, 6:45]
The remainder of Sunday from this point onward is pretty much into the no brainer sort of territory. If you’ve never heard of Slowdive before, they were a shoegaze band that released three pretty great albums in the early 90’s, and then broke up. Now nearly 20 years later, they’ve decided to reunite, and Pitchfork will be their first show in the U.S. since 1995. That’s kind of a big deal, right? In a lot of ways, they fit in right alongside today’s modern bands like Deafheaven and Deerhunter, so you could almost say they’re more relevant than ever. Meanwhile on the Blue Stage, DJ Spinn will be playing some great electronica, if that’s your thing. He’s spent a lot of time working and collaborating with DJ Rashad, and the two of them were supposed to perform together at the festival until Rashad’s death turned it into a solo set. Expect Spinn to pay tribute to his close friend in grand fashion, meaning it should hopefully be an out of control, super fun dance party. Compelling as that sounds, Slowdive is just too important to pass up.
Grimes [Red Stage, 7:25]**
Hudson Mohawke [Blue Stage, 7:45]
Hudson Mohawke performed at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival as part of TNGHT, his collaborative project with Lunice. That earned him quite a bit more attention, especially since it helped him catch the ear of Kanye West. But at the end of 2013 the duo decided to go their separate ways once more, though the door remains open for them to get back together at any time. As a solo artist, HudMo is best known for his unique take on hip hop and R&B, often infusing those styles with other genres to form something truly original and unexpected. Where he ran into trouble was sometimes trying too hard or bringing in too many different elements so tracks ventured into overkill territory. Has he managed to scale back those tendencies in the last couple of years? Somewhat, yes. There is every chance he’ll put together a pretty great mix for his set at Pitchfork, but I still don’t think it will come close to matching what Grimes will be up to on the other side of the park. One of my absolute favorite things about Grimes is that she’s firmly committed to doing everything herself, and that means holding court on stage as she plays instruments, builds loops and modifies her vocals. 2012’s Visions put her onto everyone’s radar as an experimental pop star to watch, and since then she’s raised her stock considerably. She’s in the midst of recording a new album, and has already started to play some of the new songs in concert, to even more incredible response than before. Her new single “Go,” which was originally written for Rihanna, feels like a brilliant step forward in her sound as she inches more and more towards the mainstream. If there was ever a time to jump on the Grimes bandwagon, now would be it. She’ll be all over pop radio and playing massive venues before you know it.
Kendrick Lamar [Green Stage, 8:30]**
When Kendrick Lamar performed at the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival, he was on the small Blue Stage sometime during the afternoon. His debut album wasn’t out yet, but he was already getting praised by people like Dr. Dre, claiming he was the next great talent in hip hop. Hell, even Lady Gaga showed up to Pitchfork to see his set. Now two years and one album later, Kendrick Lamar truly is the next great talent in hip hop. good kid, m.A.A.d. city turned out to be an incredible achievement, and he’s managed to follow it up with some stellar guest verses on a number of tracks, as well as some high profile touring with the likes of Kanye West. I’ve now seen him perform a total of 3 times, most recently last fall, and each set was better than the last. The man’s come a long way and has earned the success he’s achieved so far. Now he returns to Pitchfork on a victory lap, this time with full headliner status. Realistically speaking it should be a great show, he’s likely to bring out more than a few guests (see: ScHoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad), and might even preview a couple of tracks from his forthcoming sophomore album that’s currently being recorded. It will make for a fine end to a fine weekend.
FRIDAY: Day One Recap!
Last year, I was privileged enough to start something that turned into a great feature here on Faronheit. That was the “Class of 2012“, in which I chose 10 artists whose profiles I expected to rise significantly that particular year. After unleashing those names in January, I spent the year following their progress to see if they made good on that initial promise.
Some of the artists, like Grimes, Frank Ocean and Purity Ring, turned out to be inspired choices. Grimes was the #1 most blogged about artist of 2012. Frank Ocean released a record that revitalized R&B and got him applause that led to earning the top spot on many a year-end “best of” list, plus a nomination for the Album of the Year Grammy. Purity Ring just plain made a great album called Shrines that got them the same sort of praise, though maybe on a slightly smaller scale. So those were the main success stories from that last class.
Others didn’t work out so well. Kreayshawn was a “controversial” choice, a girl with a couple decent hip hop singles to her name, but who many felt was annoying and attempting to destroy the very fabric of popular music today. She promised her album would “put the haters in their place,” but sadly it only gave them more fuel to throw on the fire. She’ll undoubtedly keep trying, but will anyone bother to listen? Then you had a band like Blonds, an indie pop duo out of Florida. Their debut album The Bad Ones came out last summer, and while it often sounded like a mixture of bands like Tennis and Cults, the hooks just weren’t quite there and neither were the reviews. It wasn’t a poor effort by any means, it may just have struck at the wrong time – when a bunch of similar-sounding bands had already taken over an already crowded field.
And now a few words on Lana Del Rey. Arguably speaking, she’s a success. Her record may have been so-so outside of a few strong singles, but where she failed musically she struck gold as a figurehead. She barely even toured in 2012, yet continued to gain popularity thanks to a bunch of modeling work and commercial appearances for high end merchandise. You could say that music was just a springboard for her towards something much larger. As she moves in a new direction, can acting be far behind? We’ll see what happens in 2013. In regards to someone like Nicolas Jaar, he spent most of 2012 waking up to the idea that his album Space is Only Noise continued to be discovered and gain new fans almost every day. I expected him to rush and release something new to capitalize on his slow burn rise in popularity, but he instead chose to make some more subtle movements. Okay, so maybe releasing a compilation of largely unreleased music via a cube called The Prism isn’t entirely subtle. But he did that, compiled a BBC Essential Mix featuring some of his favorite artists, remixed a Cat Power track, and unleashed a new single called “The Ego” late in the year. He also toured quite a bit, and I saw him perform twice, which he was great both times. Maybe we’ll have something new from him in 2013?
Speaking of that, a few of my Class of 2012 still haven’t peaked quite yet. Their debut full lengths were due in 2012, but ultimately got pushed back to 2013. In other words, this year is going to be a big year for all of them, though arguably last year was too. Charli XCX put out a couple singles, an EP and a mixtape in preparation for her debut, and continues to gain new fans through touring as well. A$AP Rocky‘s record LongLiveA$AP got delayed and will finally be out this month, but he toured quite a bit in 2012 with the A$AP Mob, and unleashed a couple singles and videos. Oh man, remember that music video he did with Lana Del Rey for her song “National Anthem”? He played JFK, which was really quite out of left field. Finally, there’s Azealia Banks. Her 2012 was pretty huge, with her 1991 EP and Fantasea mixtape both coming out to a fair amount of praise. Both didn’t quite meet the expectations of her earliest singles, but the hope is that her debut full length Broke With Expensive Taste will rise to the occasion when it comes out in February. Meanwhile she’s attracting enough attention in the last couple weeks thanks to a fresh feud with Angel Haze that seems almost purposely created to promote one another. Whatever it takes to keep your name in the headlines, I guess. So long as the music is good, I don’t care how you promote it.
So let’s tie these artists up in a neat little bow and file them away for another day. Most assuredly they’ll all continue working in 2013, some with greater success than others. I’m proud of each and every one of the Class of 2012, even the ones that didn’t do so well. I plan to continue to follow all of them for the foreseeable future, but probably won’t actively report on any of it unless it feels absolutely necessary. Instead, I’ve got to shift my focus to the new year, and a brand new class. There are 10 new artists I’ll be following for all of 2013, and I’m super excited to reveal them to you later this week!
Four days, 32 artists, and one physically/mentally tired guy. That about sums up my SXSW 2012 experience. While I was stumbling around Austin in a haze the last hour of the last day, my first trip to SXSW was a wonderful experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. After hearing so many great things about the city and the conference/festival, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and simply had to go just once, just to see what it was like. The end result was largely what I expected it to be, but with a few surprises thrown in as well. My hope here is to chronicle the things I think worked about SXSW, and a few that didn’t. Also, if you click past the jump, you can see all the photos I took while in Austin. If you’d like to read about individual performances that I saw last week, have a look at the following daily reports:
Perhaps the thing that makes SXSW truly great is the sheer size of it all. There are literally thousands of bands performing over a handful of days, almost all of them within the span of about 2 square miles. Getting around from show to show isn’t bad, whether you’re on foot or feel the need to take a pedicab. Of course 6th Street can get a little packed during peak hours and create some slow downs, but it’s never anything too unmanageable, even if you need to get somewhere fast. The wide array of shows and showcases happening at any given time can also create a bit of a headache, as it’s not exactly easy to pick and choose if there are 6 artists you want to see all performing at once. Learning the city and the locations of all the venues both legitimate and illegitimate goes a long way towards helping you make such tough choices based purely on conveniece and distance from where you’re currently at. Do you go see Cloud Nothings playing down the block, or do you walk 6 blocks to see Grimes? As I see it, the decision is pretty much already made for you.
Yet there are also a few SXSW music moments that you can’t always plan for, simply because they weren’t planned. There weren’t many “secret” shows this year so much as there were secret guests like Kanye West jumping on stage at the 2 Chainz show or Eminem showing up to support 50 Cent or Bruce Springsteen bringing out everyone from Jimmy Cliff to members of Arcade Fire to Tom Morello and Alejandro Escovedo. Those extra thrills only make the experience more special. Also a major contributor: the people. Austin is already something of a cultural melting pot, but with music fans and artists coming into town from all over the world, the diversity factor multiplies by about 10. But here’s the thing aboug most music fans: they’re good, friendly people. You could strike up a great conversation with the person standing next to you in line and not blink an eye. Everybody was there because they love music, and the easiest conversation starter was always finding out who they’re most excited to see while in town. The only time I ever saw anybody get angry was when a couple of people cut in line trying to get into a show. The reaction was less anger and more, “That wasn’t cool, guys.” If we as a society behaved more like everyone in Austin at SXSW did, the world would be a more peaceful place. Unless of course you’re at an A$AP Rocky show and somebody’s throwing full beer cans at the stage. That near-riot situation was a showcase of the worst side of humanity.
But outside of good music, good people and good weather, good food is another thing Austin is known for. There were food trucks and street vendors on most corners, each specializing in a different type of cuisine. You could get breakfast tacos at one place, and some Korean version of spaghetti at another. There was plenty of BBQ to be found too. If you’re a fan of slow-roasted meats that are tender and delicious, you didn’t have to walk more than a block in downtown Austin to find some. For the cheapskates, there were also a bunch of showcases giving away free food. It’s worth noting that like grocery store samples, the “food” they give you for free is often small and may not be of the highest quality. It also gets snatched up almost immediately for those reasons as well. You’re costing yourself a potentially great meal if you’re not paying for it.
For all the great things that happen in Austin during SXSW, it’s not a perfect situation by any means. First and foremost among the issues is overcrowding. Things may get cramped when you’re walking down the street, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening inside many of the venues. Jam packed to the gills, trying to get anywhere close to the action was tough, let alone trying to make your way back to the exit. When things did get that bad, the waiting games began. Lines built up outside venues that were a city block or more long, everyone beholden to the “one in, one out” policy. Pitchfork’s evening showcase at Central Presbyterian Church was the height of madness, and I stood in line for 3 hours, missing Fiona Apple, just to get into the 500 capacity venue. Was it worth it? Eh, kinda. Every performance I saw there was a revelation, which is more than I can say about the other venues in town. I’m not entirely sure how all these sound engineers stay employed given how many times I saw an artist ask for a levels adjustment or something broke. I know these artists don’t get a soundcheck during SXSW and they want to put on the best show possible, but constantly stopping or even aborting some songs right in the middle because of a small issue takes away whatever mojo that might have developed in the meantime. The worst night of all was at Clive Bar, where Tycho played without any sub-bass, New Build’s monitors weren’t functioning properly, and Grimes was forced to start her set even after everything wasn’t tested to see if it was working properly (it wasn’t).
Sound issues are just one half of the paradoxes that SXSW presents. The other is overextension. While SXSW can be a great thing for artists (performing in front of music industry bigwigs brings all sorts of exposure along with it), agreeing to play 3 shows a day for 4 days in a row can put you near death’s door. Touring is tough enough when you’ve got one show every night for 3 weeks straight, but SXSW is a marathon compared to that long distance run. Artists function on little to no sleep and can easily blow out their voices from singing too much. On Thursday night I saw Grimes play a perfect show at Central Presbyterian Church. 24 hours later, she had performed at least twice more before arriving at Clive Bar with a voice that was barely there. She fought against it as hard as she could, and eventually had to call it quits in a set that was also plagued with sound problems. It was a valiant effort, but likely left most of the crowd disappointed. Then again, everyone was so kind, understanding and enthusiastic, it probably didn’t matter as much as I thought it did.
Finally, I want to mention the hierarchy that is SXSW. Your amount of access is almost entirely based upon your status within the music industry. If you’re not part of the industry and are simply looking to see some free music, there’s lots to choose from if you don’t mind a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of. If there was a line anywhere, it was almost guaranteed the general public would not be allowed in, as those with badges or wristbands automatically had first dibs. Among the badges and wristbands, only the badges were given priority access into any venue. Every badge would be allowed in before any wristbands would, no matter when they showed up. Of course if I had a badge I probably wouldn’t be complaining about it, it’s just that there were so many of them. There must have been at least a dozen shows I tried to get into but was denied because the room was already filled with badges. Granted, badges cost around $900 and you should be getting something for that money, but it would be more fair if they offerend some balance like for every 100 badges let in, 10 wristbands also get in. Alas, wristband holders got the shorter end of the stick, while the general public was more shafted than anything.
SXSW is something that every obsessive music fan should attend at least once in their lives. It can be a genuine blast if you let it, and only gets better the more access you have. Not but a few years ago, the several day conference/festival served as a proving and development ground for new music talent. Today, that’s not really the case anymore. You may discover your new favorite band while wandering around Austin, but for the most part our discoveries are contained to the hype cycle on the good ‘ol Internet. Then again, were it not for SXSW I never would have stumbled into the band Tearist and one of the most batshit crazy/weird live shows I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure whether it was supremely stupid or incredibly clever, but if you like incomprehensible psych-pop and somebody showing an iron beam who’s boss with a lead pipe, Tearist could be for you. Outside of the occasional exposure to an artist you didn’t intend to see, you’re quite in control of your own destiny. Unless you’re the adventuresome type willing to walk into a venue without knowing or caring who’s performing, most identify and target acts based on personal tastes or recommendations of others. With so many choices, you can use the time to check a few acts off your personal bucket list. That’s what I did, and though I didn’t get to see every artist I wanted to, I feel like what I did see was extremely worthwhile anyways, with the aforementioned issues or not. I hope I get to go again, be it next year or in 10 years. And if you didn’t go, I hope you take the opportunity to get to Austin soon. It’s a great American city, and the Live Music Capital of the World for a reason.
Click past the jump for photos of many of the bands I saw at this year’s SXSW, in alphabetical order:
Friday was an interesting day for me at SXSW. I saw some good performances, some mediocre ones, a truly devastating one, and a legendary one. I also got denied admittance to a couple of important shows, including The Shins and Jack White. But let’s not dwell on those things I missed out on, and talk about the ones I actually saw. Once again, as a reminder, I’ll have photo sets of most of what I’m writing about next week, when I get home and can get the pictures off my camera.
My first live show of the day was a little later than Thursday, in part because there wasn’t much I wanted to see early in the afternoon. Also I had trouble making a decision. I chose to explore Austin a little more, and venture out to one of the more “off the grid” venues, away from the hustle and bustle that is 6th Street. There was a house party going on for the Comedy Central show Workaholics that I considered attending for a brief period, but there was a huge line to get in. Just down the block was Clive Bar, and they had a pretty decent afternoon showcase going on. I arrived there moments before Class Actress took the stage. Honestly, seeing Elizabeth Harper perform has been on my musical bucket list for awhile now, and I always seem to have something big happening the days she’s playing shows in Chicago. Now in Austin, this was my chance. Her set was surprisingly short, perhaps in part due to a late start after some sound issues, and she mostly stuck to material off her latest album Rapprocher. She was warm, funny, engaging and all-around a delight. I don’t think enough people realize what a talent she really is, and hopefully some important heads were turned watching her during SXSW. I was also quite fascinated by her choice of outfit for the 80 degree and sunny day – a loose-fitting, over the shoulder sweater, a sport coat, a pair of gold necklaces, and high heels. She truly does put the “class” in Class Actress.
Next on the bill were Friends, a band from Bushwick, NY that has been making serious waves in the last year. In addition to some healthy blog buzz, Friends caught the attention of Sir Elton John a few months back, and they attended his holiday party. Really it’s still the tip of the iceberg, as they don’t even have a debut full length out yet. Before the end of the year they will though. In the meantime, they’re going out on tour with Neon Indian and doing other fun stuff like SXSW performances. Friends make a very percussion-heavy tropical pop, if you want to call it that. They’ve been compared to Lykke Li and that’s only one facet of their multi-layered sound. Their set at Clive Bar was one to behold though, and I’m glad I stuck around for it. While the rest of the band pretty much plays it straight and light, singer Samantha Urbani is the live wire keeping the crowd in a fit of wild bliss. She jumps around, makes faces, and directly interacts with audience members in the middle of songs. During the song “Friend Crush”, she hopped off the stage and began hugging and touching the faces of people in the crowd. When the band launched into their cover of the Ghost Town DJs classic “My Boo”, she pulled a few audience members up to dance. It made for a fun little party in the late afternoon. I’d like to think the members of Friends became my friend after a set like that. You’d be wise to see them yourself, before they get huge.
Once Friends had finished, I was all set to skip over to see Fanfarlo, but on the way I stumbled onto a show I wasn’t aware existed until that very moment. Vivian Girls were playing a set in a parking lot. There were no listings for any Vivian Girls shows, only Katy Goodman’s La Sera solo project and drummer Fiona Campbell’s other band Coasting. But that’s one of the great things about SXSW: sometimes a last minute surprise show happens, and kudos to you if you can discover it. I only got to see them play a few songs, but any songs from Vivian Girls are kind of a treat. I don’t expect them to be around forever, given the strong side project work they’re all up to, but just having them around and playing a show together is all anyone can ask for. Here’s the thing though: they’re a very good, but not quite great live band. Their music translates exceptionally well from the record to the stage, but they don’t do a whole lot while they’re up there. In some ways it’s like they’re on autopilot. Those songs are such a delight too, which gives them more live show slack. So to sum up, it was nice seeing Vivian Girls live for the first time, even if it was a shortened set in a parking lot.
By the time I’d caught up with Fanfarlo, they were about halfway through their set. Playing at the same time as a surprise Vivian Girls show will do that to one’s arrival time. I was pleased to see a moderately large crowd watching them in a shaded courtyard. They stuck with mostly material off their new record Rooms Filled With Light as expected, though they ended with the classic “Harold T. Wilkins” that the crowd was quite pleased with. Also pleasing were a pair of strong saxophone solos courtesy of singer Simon Balthazar. Yet the band’s performance was a lot like Vivian Girls’ in that they didn’t so much breathe new life into decent material but instead performed it almost verbatim with the record. Once you see so many live shows, playing it straight simply doesn’t cut it anymore. In other words, Fanfarlo was good but a touch short of great.
After getting stuck in long lines for The Shins and the Third Man showcase only to not get in, I ventured back to Clive Bar for an evening showcase that was well up my alley. Tycho was first on the bill, but from the start there were problems. Apparently the speakers weren’t working, or at least not properly. A 30 minute delay later, and the 3-piece just decided to start even though there wouldn’t be any bass pumping through the speakers. The crowd was told to imagine there was some phat bass to the songs played and that hopefully they’d fix the problem during the set. Of course then other sound issues began to appear, like monitor trouble and the like, so it became a game of small adjustments throughout the set. Still, Tycho was good enough to impress me and make me wonder why I don’t listen to/own more of his music. Gonna have to get on that one. Sprawling instrumental electro post-rock that’s as gorgeous as it is fun.
MNDR was next on the bill, and unlike when I tried to see her Wednesday night, she actually showed up this time. Actually, after a brief Twitter exchange with her, she showed up on Wednesday night when I was there, but was bumped off the bill as they were running late. So consider that a correction. Anyways, she wasn’t bumped this time, and her show was fascinating to say the least. Yet again they were having sound issues, which would become a recurring theme throughout the night. For those that don’t know, MNDR makes pop music, but in a little more independent fashion than most other music stars these days. I had always assumed there were producers and writing teams responsible for her music, as is the case with your pop stars of today. But no, it’s only MNDR (Amanda Warner), completely producing, writing and singing these songs herself. That’s a very DIY attitude and I admire it significantly. That said, I’m not the biggest fan of her music. She’s lovely and hilarious, but her songs failed to get me going. She’s got a new record coming out this summer, so I wish her the best of luck with that.
Next up was New Build, a band from the UK that has ties to Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem. Ironic then that New Build sounds just like what would happen if you took those two bands and combined them. They’re a whole lot of fun, and have 3 percussionists, among other things. There were sound issues galore during their set, including a defective monitor, but the band did their best to make it through their set with minimal disruption. They only got to play a handful of songs, but the ones they did were great and got the crowd seriously moving. Their debut album Yesterday Was Lived and Lost is out now and worth checking out if you like a good organic dance sound. I predict much bigger things for them in the coming years.
SXSW can be hard on the artists sometimes, especially if they’re booked for multiple shows multiple days in a row. Such is the case with Grimes, who has been working harder than anyone the last few days. She’s also in the middle of her first really big tour, which naturally is putting her resolve to the test. All that came to a head Friday night with her Clive Bar set. The sound issues that hurt the bands before her continued, not aided whatsoever by the MC between sets, coming out to “introduce” Grimes but not being aware she hadn’t even soundchecked yet. Claire Boucher just kind of stood there with a puzzled look on her face wondering when she was going to test some microphone levels and such. The crowd was itching to hear her start, and kept yelling for her to forget the soundcheck and just go, but every performer wants to get those sorts of things right to ensure a quality show. Once things were finally in a satisfactory state, Boucher introduced herself and mentioned she had a sore throat from not sleeping, so her high notes might sound shitty. Ah, the perils of too many performances. Things started off okay, but quickly descended into a hell of more sound problems and a vocal blowout. Certain equipment stopped working, the speakers went out, and she was visibly clawing at her throat like it was on fire. Truly everything that could have gone wrong during that set, did go wrong. Yet she pressed onward as best she could, and the crowd was very forgiving. She got through “Oblivion” well enough, and a light bit of dancing while also multitasking between keyboards and her effects table made it all the more charming. It may have been the worst Grimes performance to date, but none of it was really her fault. The whole thing was a sharp contrast with the night before at Central Presbyterian Church, where I walked away in awe of what she’d accomplished. This time I just felt sorry for her. I’ve got a great feeling she’ll bounce back though, better than ever.
Headlining the night was YACHT, who I was excited to see because I’d never seen them before. I’ve admired their last couple albums but wouldn’t say I was in love with them, and was intrigued to hear how the colorful characters of Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans would bring the songs to life. Turns out, a YACHT show is one of the biggest and best parties you can ever go to. Both Bechtolt and Evans are super entertaining people that dance around and interact with crowds and get everyone riled up in the best sort of way. When they too were plagued with a little bit of sound problems, they either ignored them or took Q&A with the crowd while they waited for the issues to be sorted out. Their songs, while ordinarily very beat-heavy and fun, only got heavier and more fun when performed live. Both Bechtolt and Evans came into the dance pit fun zone near the front of the stage at one point or another, and Evans even got in some serious crowd surfing. She also climbed up on speakers and threw microphone stands. It was by far the most entertaining show I’ve seen so far at SXSW and I could not recommend it more highly. That turned into the party of all parties, and a crowd that came to dance but was often left disappointed due to sound issues, finally got their chance to let all inhibitions go. My feet are in terrible, terrible shape from standing all day the last couple days, but even I couldn’t help busting a move or two. When a band pushes you beyond the limits even you thought you’d go, there’s something special there. How are YACHT not huge right now?
I’m going to attempt to make this Thursday recap of my SXSW adventure as brief as possible. Knowing me though, brief is a relative term. Let’s just see how this goes. Oh, and as a reminder, I’ll have all my photos for you sometime next week when I can properly edit them down.
My first stop of the day was over to Google/YouTube’s parking lot party. They had a stage set up on the roof of a parking garage and all the free drinks you could handle. Best Coast had an early afternoon set, and I wanted to hear some new songs off their forthcoming second album. I came, and the band delivered. Bethany, Bobb and two other guys played about 5-6 new ones, with a smattering of old “classics” in there too. There was “Boyfriend” and “When I’m With You”, but also “Why I Cry” and “How They Want Me to Be”, among others. Overall an excellent set, better than the last time I saw the band which was a couple years ago.
Sticking around and drinking more, I caught Cults next. In the about 7 months since I saw them last, they’ve grown quite a bit. I don’t mean physically, but performance-wise. The more touring they’ve been getting under their belts, the better they seem to get. Everything about their performance was spot on, even though I was standing right across from Brian Oblivion’s guitar amp and my ears were getting blasted. Madeline Follin is more confident behind the microphone as well, which is a big help. They played material off their debut album, and maybe a couple new ones, though I can’t be certain they weren’t obscure b-sides or something.
I could think of no place I’d rather be after Cults than waiting at that same stage again but this time for Frankie Rose. I really like her new album Interstellar, plus it’s been a little while since I saw her last. She was performing with the Outs back then, who were subsequently dropped. She’s now got a core backing band of about 5 other people, and they all do a solid job. But really it’s Rose’s show, and her masterful stage presence helps make the hot outdoor stage just a bit more bearable. She also played it pretty liberal with her song choices, pulling almost equally from her first album and her new one.
What’s sad about the Frankie Rose show and the two before it was how sparsely attended they were. Sure, that meant no lines, no fighting to get to the front of the stage, and more free alcohol for me, but those were 3 great bands I saw in a row that maybe 50 others were also there to witness. Nobody even approached the stage or hung out at the barricade until Frankie Rose started her set. Even then it was myself and 4 others all the way up there. I’m sure all 3 of those bands will have much better crowds for the rest of their SXSW, but for an event put on by Google you’d think more people would come. Or maybe it was too early/people were at the conference listening to Springsteen do his keynote. Whatever the reason, it was nice to see those performances without being packed like sardines into some small club. Which is where I went next.
Chairlift are playing about 3 shows a day every day during SXSW, and because I’m kind of in love with their new album Something, I promised I’d go see them at least once. They were playing at a small club for the Under the Radar party, and of course it was crowded. To the point where it became a “one in, one out” situation and I was stuck in a long line. By the time I got inside, the band had already finished half their set. The half I did catch was all stuff from their new album, so I walked away pretty happy. Caroline Polachek appeared to be having a blast too, which is super hard when you’re playing multiple shows every day. Part of me wants to see them again before SXSW ends to get the full set experience.
After trying and failing a couple times to get into the Hype Hotel (a venue put on by the Hype Machine) due to seriously long lines, I decided that standing in line for Pitchfork’s showcase at Central Presbyterian Church would be my next best option. In case you were not aware, the church holds about 450 people total, and Fiona Apple was set to open the showcase. So many people were in line just to see Fiona. Having seen her the day before (albeit at a much larger venue), I was far more interested in the 4 members of my Class of 2012 that were performing after her.
After 3 excruciating hours of standing in line, I was kindly granted access to the church, arriving at the middle of Charli XCX‘s set. She’s really only got a couple songs to her name right now, but she’s already being tipped as a future star by myself and a few others. Her debut album will be out before the end of the year, and undoubtedly all the songs she performed Thursday night will be on it. Everything sounds fantastic, she’s got great stage presence, and I’m intrigued to hear how the recorded versions of a couple songs sound. All in due time.
Purity Ring were up next, another band without a debut album to their name and only a couple singles floating around the internet. Their marriage of hip hop beats and smooth female vocals naturally brings the duo into the sphere of Sleigh Bells by just a little bit. Like Sleigh Bells, it’s also a whole lot of fun. Purity Ring works harder to make it special too, requesting that all the lights in the venue be turned off so they could play around with multicolored orbs that glow and change colors when struck. As visually arresting as their set was, the music was just as excellent. Singles “Lofticries” and “Belispeak” couldn’t have been more on the money, to the point where most of the other songs seemed a little weaker by comparison. It was fun and danceable, but it’s a little tough to get people’s natural reaction in the middle of a seated pew church. Still, I’d like to think the standing ovation at the end of their set was a realistic response to what we’d just seen.
Next up was Grimes, who was quick to set up and get started. She didn’t want to waste any time, nor should she have. Using plenty of looping and synths, she crafted an incredible avant-pop soundscape that was wholly engaging and rather delightful. There were a couple moments where she messed a thing or two up, and that’s almost expected when you’re doing everything on your own, but it was a very forgiving crowd and she was super goofy about it. Most of what she did involved constructing songs off her latest album Visions, however there were a few experiments in there with vocal harmonies and the like that were sheer beauty. “Oblivion” and “Genesis” both got their turn as well, the latter after she was told there was time for one more song. She then refused to stop, playing another song in spite of the house lights coming up and organizers pulling their hair out. It was over after another couple minutes though, and she was treated with another standing ovation.
Much of the crowd cleared out after Grimes, only to make way for Nicolas Jaar, who was set to compose an original set based on the church setting. I expected it to be just a little boring and quiet, because the guy isn’t necessarily big on dance-worthy beats. Yet he still managed to piece together an excellent long-form piece that was introspective and beautiful while also upbeat and fun. That’s no easy feat, and he had a couple friends on hand to provide some live instrumentation along with his laptop-composed elements. I was a little angry at all the people taking flash photos during the set, because that’s long been a rude thing to do. Of course Jaar and his band were playing in near total darkness, and if you wanted a halfway decent picture flash was needed. I took no photos for the exact reason of it being too dark and I didn’t want to use the flash. Some people will do anything for a photo, and it looked like a lightning storm or paparazzi attack for at least the first 15 minutes before tapering off somewhat. The music was amazing though, transcendent would be the word I’d best use to describe it. Go see Nicolas Jaar if you have the chance. The guy’s crazy talented.
Finally, to cap off my night I wanted a little rock and roll. After being kicked to the curb at the PureVolume House because I hadn’t picked up my venue-specific badge earlier in the day/week, I dashed over to catch Cloud Nothings performing on a rooftop. It was an extremely packed space, but even on the very busy 6th Street you could hear the band’s set quite clearly. No doubt many enjoyed their music without actually seeing any of it performed. But up on the roof people were jumping and throwing their fists into the air, like any good punk show should have going for it. Oh, and head banging. Plenty of that too. From what I heard of their set, which was about the back half of it, they played almost entirely material from their latest album Attack on Memory. It’s a great record, one of my favorites of 2012 so far, so I was having a blast. I was also super tired having been on my feet all day, but it was so much fun. A great capper to my night before heading back to the hotel to rest up for Day 3 of this madness. To think we’re only halfway there!
Claire Boucher is nothing if not productive. As the singular force behind the musical pseudonym Grimes, she has released four full length records in the last 2 years. That started with 2010’s Geidi Primes, blossomed into Halfaxa later that year, and then continued building with Darkbloom last year. If you’ve heard approximately zero of those first three records, don’t beat yourself up too much; they sit and taunt from the deepest of deep levels in Canada’s underground electro scene. That is to say they were impressive and influential enough to earn Grimes some attention, but difficult and unfocused enough to keep her out of the spotlight for all practical purposes. Each of those first three albums was intended to play up a different side of her influences, and none of them were really all-encompassing efforts. Boucher herself has basically called them practice records for the real thing, which has finally resulted in her brand new album Visions complete with a brand new home on indie stalwart label 4AD. The end product is a remarkable and rather breathtaking skew on traditional pop music and electronica, complete with a supremely psychedelic edge that slices deep into your emotional reservoir even as it prods the pleasure centers of your brain with seductive beats and hooks.
The first thing you should know about Grimes is that she’s a producer before she’s a musician. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, but the whole point of mentioning it is because it affects the way she puts together songs. In fact, Boucher is doing what so many other forward-thinking artists are doing these days, which is attempting to break the rules of traditional songwriting and composing through the use of technology. At its core, Visions is a record created by a voice and a keyboard. Listening to it, there’s almost no way you’d realize that given all that’s going on. Virtually everything is run through some sort of filter or effect, and portions of songs are dubbed and overdubbed and smashed atop one another like some sort of sonic sandwich. Credit goes to Boucher for knowing when to stop adding more, because in more than a few cases it feels like the depths of some of the songs could be infinite. Her restraint is admirable and a great sign that she knows what she wants and tweaks it ever so slightly until she gets there. The ultimate result is a record that’s equal parts pop music and ambiance, pleasure and pain, not to mention human and computer.
The first track on Visions is “Infinite Love Without Fulfillment”, and it immediately lays out what to expect for the rest of the record. Lasting a mere 96 seconds, it confounds traditional song structure while maintaining a very danceable rhythm and sugar-sweet vocals. Boucher’s voice takes on 3 distinct personalities on the track, and they intermingle with one another with no regard for decency or clarity, to the point where it becomes like trying to listen to a single conversation in a room full of talking people. In spite of the perceived vocal confusion and the challenge of distinguishing lyrics, there’s a symbiosis and elegance to how all the moving pieces of the song work together. Indeed for most of Visions you’ll struggle to understand what Boucher is singing about, and that’s not always because of overdubbing. On the song “Genesis” for example, her singular voice is so drenched in echo it becomes the auditory effect of trying to see the car in front of you while driving through a dense fog. “Eight” turns one of her vocals into a deep-voiced robot and another into a woman that’s clearly been breathing in way too much helium. Despite all the different ways Boucher throws her vocals around, there are a few moments of genuine clarity, and those brief snapshots tend to be about relationships going through some sort of turmoil. “Oh baby I can’t say/that everything will be okay,” Boucher sings on “Circumambient”, signaling right from the start that there’s problems. Towards the end of “Skin”, she’s also in a sad place, espousing, “You touch me again and somehow it stings/because I know it is the end.”
Lyrical content is really the last thing you should be looking for on Visions though, because it’s far more about how these songs come together than it is any message they’re trying to get across. Boucher herself has said in interviews that she often feels the need to cover up her lyrics out of self-criticism over her skills as a writer but also because the melodies themselves should be telling you how to feel and not the words. With so much emphasis placed on what’s being said and not the way it’s being said, that’s a very refreshing take on pop music. Think of this record like a synth-pop inspired version of Sigur Ros, where the vocals are first and foremost another instrument in the mix rather than something intended to sit front and center as a path to deeper understanding. Or, even better, there are portions of the album that are very K-pop and J-pop influenced, and whether you’re a fan of Dance Dance Revolution or simply like those sorts of songs without speaking the language, there’s plenty of moments such as “Nightmusic” that you’ll be able to wholly enjoy. In fact, there’s a whole host of influences on Visions that may tickle your fancy depending on your tastes. Obviously if you’re into electronica and its many subgenres like IDM and Balearic you’ll be impressed with the strong beats that populate much of the record. The same goes for devotees of 80s pop, wherein the strains of a track like “Vowels = space and time” calls to mind Stacy Q or “Oblivion” has something distinctly Cyndi Lauper about it. And while 2011 was the year of the R&B revival, songs like “Be A Body” and “Skin” break out those influences as well, the former even impressing with some sky-high Mariah Carey falsettos. In spite of the various swaths of genres across the album, it all holds together quite nicely thanks to Boucher’s dynamic production style and ability to put together a very strong melody.
It goes without saying that Grimes is one of the most exciting new talents to emerge out of an ever-evolving music scene. Her previous records all hinted at what Visions would be in one way or another, and it’s extremely pleasing to hear her finally fulfill much of that early potential. For all of its oddities, this record is extremely listenable from start to finish, and cuts like “Genesis”, “Oblivion”, “Circumambient” and “Nightmusic” make it supremely catchy as well. In many ways these songs feel like the next step towards a genuine breakthrough in music, one in which a multitude of styles gives birth to a beautiful new hybrid that’s more aesthetically pleasing than any single one of them on their own. The best part is there’s continued room for improvement and growth, even as this record hovers near the precipice of perfection. Grimes has been an artist to watch from the day she first started releasing music 2 years ago, but only now, thanks to Visions will she begin to earn the attention she truly deserves.
Welcome to 2012! I hope you all had a great New Year’s. For my Chinese readers, we’ll celebrate next month. I’m very pleased to kick off this fresh new year in a similar fashion to how we ended 2011: with a list. Typically I leave all the listmaking for December and Listmas, but in this particular case I wanted to set a few objectives for 2012 and stick by them. That is to say, I want to step out on a proverbial limb and predict what will be hot this upcoming year. So I have created what I’m calling the Class of 2012: 10 Artists to Watch This Year. These are artists that, if you haven’t heard of them yet, hopefully you’ll know much more about them by the end of the year. I’m expecting big things from all these artists, though to be clear “big” can be defined a few different ways in this case. A couple of them will sign minor league record deals and make a small splash on the indie circuit, going from completely unknown to only relatively unknown. Others will become enraptured in the hype cycle and achieve much critical acclaim and potentially indie stardom. And even a few might just break out huge, turning into the next music superstars. The grand hope is that all these artists will obtain some serious forward momentum and reach your radar screens sooner rather than later. My plan is to provide periodic updates on all 10 of these artists, keeping a close eye on where they’re at and what they’re doing, in addition to the site’s more typical cycle of album reviews and mp3 giveaways. Stick with me as we learn more about the Class of 2012 so we can say we discovered them together. Let’s start with some introductions, so click past the jump to learn more about these wonderful ladies and gentlemen and hear some music by each one of them as well.