As we reach the halfway point in our countdown, let me say a few quick words about D’Angelo. As you’ve hopefully heard, he released his long-awaited second album Black Messiah a couple of weeks ago, during a time when many in the music world had already released their Top Albums of 2014 lists, or at the very least were on the verge of doing so. The Top 50 Albums list that we’re counting down right now was actually all locked in during the first week of December. Really it’s just the writing that’s holding up everything being published in a more immediate fashion. So like those other music media outlets, I’m officially ruling that Black Messiah missed the unofficial cut off date and will not be found on this list. If you’ll recall, a similar thing happened with Beyonce last year, as her self-titled album came out a couple of weeks before Christmas. That turned out to be one of the best albums of 2013, to the point where I almost felt it’d be reasonable to include it on this year’s list since it missed out last year. Actually that D’Angelo record is one of 2014’s best as well, which also makes its lack of representation here just a touch sad. So I’ll advocate for it right now. Please check it out and pick up a copy. Of course I’ll also recommend that you pick up copies of all the albums on this Top 50 list. In case you missed the previous entries, here once again are links to #50-41 and #40-31. We’re continuing to chug along here, and I’m now pleased to present the next segment, #30-21!
Tag: sharon van etten
This Top 50 Songs list is not organized in any other way than by perceived order of excellence, so when you have a look at the set of 10 below, you may be surprised at how thematically related almost all of them are to one another. It was a total fluke things worked out like that, and in fact I didn’t even notice myself until writing up this introduction. The overarching theme is love, whether you’re falling into it, out of it, or somewhere in between, which is a subject matter as old as music itself. I just looked it up, and apparently about 60% of all songs written today are about love, so I guess the similarities aren’t all that shocking after all. Anyways, let’s get right into it, shall we? This freight train keeps rolling on with #40-31 of the Top 50 Songs of 2014! Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s #50-41.
Join me after the jump for a collection of photos that I took on Day 1 (Friday) 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 going here.
The first day of the 2014 Pitchfork Music Festival is in the books, and it was an interesting one to say the least. You could say that the festival got off to a very relaxed start, which has both benefits and drawbacks. The biggest positive is that you can just kind of chill out and move at your own pace, without a whole lot of pressure to be up and about dancing or moving from stage to stage. The downside is there wasn’t a whole lot to get overly excited about. My approach to Friday was to treat it a bit like a sampler platter, spending a little bit of time with just about every artist performing tp get a taste, and then moving on to something else. I can’t say anything was particularly bad, and I didn’t always want to walk away, but it’s always good to know you’re not missing something completely mindblowing on the opposite side of the park. So here’s a bit of a chronicle detailing the performances I saw and how worthwhile they all were.
My day started with Hundred Waters, who were the first band of the shortened Friday, and were playing unopposed due to Death Grips’ breakup/cancellation. Singer Nicole Miglis joked about it at the start of their set: “This is when we start playing Death Grips covers, right?” And so, with a little bit of a wink, they launched into a set that was comprised primarily of snogs off their new album The Moon Rang Like A Bell. On record the band is equal parts introspective, beautiful and energetic, and those aspects were even more amplified in their live performance. The highs were much higher, the lows a little lower, and all of it was tackled with grace and aplomb. The moderate sized crowd that had gathered to watch seemed to enjoy themselves, though very few felt the need to bust out their dance moves on the handful of tracks where it was appropriate to do so. Maybe next time.
As Hundred Waters doesn’t have a wealth of material to pull from, they finished their set in 45 minutes, leaving a 20 minute gap before Neneh Cherry and RocketNumberNine started up on the nearby Green Stage. Thankfully Factory Floor was just taking the stage on the other side of the park, so I ventured over there to have a short look at what that setup was like. Part of me suspected the trio would be essentially playing music with laptops and turntables, fiddling with knobs the entire time while encouraging people to dance, but the actual reality of it was far different. Sure, Dominic Butler’s primary job is to twist and turn knobs and trigger samples, but there’s also Gabriel Gumsey playing drums and multi-instrumentalist Nik Colk adding guitar, keyboards and distorted vocals to the proceedings. Listening to their records, you would never know. It makes their performance a lot more interesting to watch, and also somehow infuses even more energy into their songs. About half of the crowd was dancing pretty hard for the 20 minutes I was there, and showed no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Part of me wishes I could have stayed.
Yet Neneh Cherry was calling my name. As she’s been making music since 1989, Cherry is now a music industry veteran with several prolific records under her belt. She was a genre-crossing pioneer back in her early days, and her latest album Blank Project with RocketNumberNine proves she still hasn’t lost that touch. The same can be said for her live performance, which was packed with just the right mixture of energy and experimentation. While her set started off with a ballad, things picked up quickly from there, and soon she was dancing and whipping her hair around with the beats. She seemed to be having a lot of fun, and the crowd was more than willing to go along on that ride with her. Not particularly excited about looking back to her earlier records, she mostly ignored them, save for a couple of songs that included her biggest hit “Buffalo Stance.” Ever the innovator though, everything old sounded new again by turning the classics inside out to the point where they were nearly unrecognizable. It would be disappointing to hear a beloved song completely changed if it wasn’t so damn good.
Sharon Van Etten has really grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years, both on record and in her live performance. Whereas four years ago she performed at Pitchfork solo with one record to support, these days she’s got a full band and three albums to her name. The songs have gotten more expansive, her stage presence more dynamic. A hit like “Serpents” roared to life with more power and visceral energy than ever, while a ballad like “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” added some late afternoon pathos that was more beautiful than sad. It’s always great to see an artist truly flourishing, and Van Etten gets better every single time that I see her.
There’s not a whole lot I can say about SZA. I saw her perform three songs and they were all pretty indistinctive, which is a shame because she appears to be a genuinely delightful person. She appeared surprised by and appreciative of the relatively large crowd that had gathered to see her, and encouraged everyone to have fun. If only her songs were a little more suited to the outdoor setting. The arrangements were minimal and the energy was just a touch lacking, leaving many people standing around not entirely sure how they should react. I shrugged my shoulders, decided it wasn’t doing much for me, and hoped to discover a better situation on the other side of the park.
Having listened to the Benji record quite a bit these last few months, and being largely familiar with Mark Kozelek’s back catalogue as Sun Kil Moon, I was a little concerned that his early evening Pitchfork set on the massive Green Stage might wind up being a bit of a snooze. Turns out that was a pretty accurate description of what transpired. Kozelek and his band were seated on stage for the entire set, which in turn gave the crowd very little reason to stand either. Most spent their time sitting in the grass and chatting with friends, leaving the music as more background accompaniment rather than a priority. Those that did pay close attention were treated to slightly less effective versions of great songs. The biggest problem was the reverb Kozelek used on his vocals, which largely removed the emotional impact of his direct and unflinchingly honest lyrics. By the time he finally did muster up some energy on the sexual history confessional of “Dogs,” most of the crowd had scattered to either look for food/drinks or wait for Giorgio Moroder, who started 15 minutes late due to Sun Kil Moon going long.
The smoke machine was in full effect over at the Blue Stage for Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks. It was about the only visual element the band had on stage with them, which is certainly different than what Animal Collective and their other respective side projects have tended to do. But what they lacked visually they made up for sonically. They tore through the songs on their debut album Welcome to the Slasher House with more dissonance and energy than how they appear on record. Even a single like “Little Fang” felt a little more vital and fun in this setting. And the crowd pretty much freaked out in the best way possible. There was all kinds of dancing and crowd surfing near the front, and all kinds of head bobbing and toe tapping near the back. It was a strange, kinetic set, and actually quite delightful.
I’ve watched enough Giorgio Moroder live videos to know what his performances are like. At 74, he’s experiencing a big revival in his career thanks in no small part to his work with Daft Punk on their latest album Random Access Memories. The man has worked on probably hundreds of dance and disco hits over the course of his lifetime, and he played some of the biggest ones during his set. His work with Donna Summer featured heavily, with “Love to Love You,” “Hot Stuff” and “I Feel Love,” among others. It was almost all easily recognizable songs, which proved great as the crowd danced up a storm and sang along almost the entire time. Moroder did his part to encourage the party atmosphere, clapping to the beat, throwing his hands in the air, and generally appearing to have a great time as he pretty much just pushed buttons on a laptop. Not the most inspiring stage setup, but with all those classic hits blasting out of the speakers, it didn’t matter.
Beck is nothing if not a showman. He’s built up an arsenal of funky and fun hits, and there’s no way he’s not going to give them his all in concert. Kicking things off with “Devil’s Haircut,” he danced around the stage like there were ants in his pants, and the crowd did the same. This wasn’t so much the start of a show as it was the start of a party. He pulled from all over his catalogue, so “Black Tambourine” and “Chemtrails” could sit alongside “Sexx Laws” and “Lost Cause.” There were a few more introspective moments around the halfway point in the set, when Beck chose to perform a couple of songs from his somber acoustic new record Morning Phase, but for the most part it was bizness as usual. He closed with a sublime mashup of “Where It’s At” and “One Foot in the Grave,” complete with harmonica solo, which is standard but is also incredibly effective. Overall it was nice to end the night on a huge high, after the very mellow moments from earlier in the day. Saturday looks to be even more fun, and I’ll have a full recap of that very soon, plus photo sets from the entire weekend. Stay tuned!
And so it begins. Following yesterday’s artist guide, which exposed you to all the sounds of the artists performing at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, I’m now proud to present the first of three previews guides leading up to the start of the weekend this Friday. Speaking of Friday, that’s what we’ll talk about right now. The way that this works is pretty simple: I’ve arranged all of the artists in order of their set times, and separated them according to the hour in which they’ll be performing. From there, I’ll talk a little bit about each one, and ultimately make a recommendation (as indicated by **) as to which you should see at that time, provided you’re able. Even though it’s a shorter day than the rest, Friday still has plenty of quality to offer. Learn all about it with the guide below!
Hundred Waters [Red Stage, 3:30]**
With Death Grips calling it quits, the singular obstacle that could have drawn people away from Hundred Waters has now been removed. The band has also gotten a promotion from the comparatively small Blue Stage up to the large Red Stage, as they’ll have a full 45 minutes to perform with no competition anywhere else at the festival. Now you may think this is a good excuse to show up later and skip this band, whose material you might not be very familiar with. But let me assure you, Hundred Waters are great, and very much worth showing up early for. In the weeks following the release of their second album The Moon Rang Like A Bell a couple months ago, I developed an addiction to this band that holds pretty steadfast today. They make very chill but very gorgeous electro-pop, and singer Nicole Miglis has the voice of an angel, often twisted in fascinating ways reminiscent of early Bjork. It should make for a delightful start to the weekend, so show up when the gates open!
Factory Floor [Blue Stage, 4:15]
Neneh Cherry with RocketNumberNine [Green Stage, 4:35]**
Factory Floor’s sound has been described as “industrial post-punk,” which doesn’t seem particularly accurate to my ears. They’re so much more than that, as they avoid easy characterization by pulling from a wide variety of sources that include disco and more traditional EDM. Primarily they’re able to craft interesting, beat-heavy dance music that keeps you guessing. Their self-titled debut album from last year proved to be quite worthwhile, and it’s going to be a whole lot of fun watching them grow in both profile and songcraft. If you’re in the mood for a groove, Factory Floor are a safe bet. It’s somewhat tragic then that they’re paired up against Neneh Cherry, who is a legend. Cherry herself probably wouldn’t like that “l” word being tossed around so flagrantly, but she’s been making music for a few decades now, and when your career gets that long you earn that status whether you want it or not. Equally fascinating is how Cherry remains something of an unknown entity in the United States, where her only breakthrough “hit” was the song “Buffalo Stance” from her 1988 debut album. Perhaps that’s why she’s only ever played one U.S. show. Her set at Pitchfork will be her second, essentially turning it into a must-see situation. As an artist who is also always innovating and never sticking with one particular style or genre of music for too long, if she does a career-spanning set it will be all sorts of fun and maybe just a little weird. More likely she’ll play a lot of stuff from her latest album Blank Project, which is an understated but powerful record that features collaborations with Robyn, electronic duo RocketNumberNine (who will be performing at the fest with her) and Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet). So yeah, unless you really want to get your dance on at Factory Floor, Neneh Cherry is the one to see.
The Haxan Cloak [Blue Stage, 5:15]
Sharon Van Etten [Red Stage, 5:30]**
To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure why Pitchfork booked The Haxan Cloak to play this festival. London-based producer Bobby Krlic is the man behind the name, and while what he does is brilliant, it’s also incredibly minimalist and dark. The last Haxan Cloak album Excavation was one of my favorites from last year, however it’s so subdued and death obsessed that it’s never something you want to put on during the daytime. You listen to it in the pitch black of night, in your bedroom, by yourself, with headphones on. It could well function as the soundtrack to your favorite horror film. How this is going to translate via a late afternoon time slot on an outdoor stage is a mystery to me. Part of me thinks there’s no way it can work. It’d be great if Krlic proved me wrong. A far better bet is Sharon Van Etten, the dynamic singer-songwriter who continues to grow by leaps and bounds with each new record. When she performed at this festival for the first time in 2010, she performed solo with a single guitar, and at one point couldn’t continue because she broke a string. The guys in Modest Mouse lent her a new guitar so she could continue. Four years and two new albums later, she’s got a full band behind her, regular radio airplay, and a lot more guitars. Her confidence as a live performher has grown exponentially as well, making her shows lively, beautiful and altogether worthwhile.
SZA [Blue Stage, 6:15]
Sun Kil Moon [Green Stage, 6:25]**
This one’s a case of hip hop/R&B vs. folk. Without a doubt, even though SZA will be on the smaller Blue Stage, you will probably be able to hear her set by the Green Stage when Mark Kozelek aka Sun Kil Moon is performing. It’s the simple disparity in styles and volume. As to why I’m recommending Sun Kil Moon over SZA, that’s purely a selection based on quality of music, not quality of live performance. I’m betting that SZA will put on a thoroughly enjoyable, relatively high energy set, dominated with tracks from her debut album Z. The problem is, that record isn’t exactly great, or even pretty good for that matter. Meanwhile, Sun Kil Moon’s latest effort Benji is regarded by many critics to be one of 2014’s absolute best. It is truly a remarkable record, filled with engaging melodies and lyrical stories that come across like pure poetry. Yet like most solo folk records, it’s extremely laid back and bare. If you can find a spot in the grass near the Green Stage to lay down as the sun begins to dip in the sky, there’s some real potential that Sun Kil Moon could hit your sweet spot. Or you’ll just spend the whole time during his set talking loudly with your friends.
Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks [Blue Stage, 7:15]
Giorgio Moroder [Red Stage, 7:20]**
If there’s a conflict to be had on Friday, it’s with this time slot. For those who love psychedelia, specifically Animal Collective-style psychedelia, Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks delivers in spades. This is a more straightforward and catchy Animal Collective side project, and their debut album Enter the Slasher House is one of my personal favorites from the first half of 2014. Of course I’m happy to advise you to go and see them if their music is something you might enjoy. But your better bet would be to split your time somewhat unevenly and spending a fair portion at Giorgio Moroder. The man has been part of the music world since the 70s when he helped to turn disco into something huge. He’s continued his pioneering ways ever since, to the point of winning a Grammy last year for collaborating with Daft Punk on their Random Access Memories album. All indications are that his set will be very fun, very dance friendly and very familiar. By that, I mean he’ll be spinning mixes and remixes of classic dance and disco songs from the last few decades, so you can sing along while showing off your best (or worst) moves. What’s not to love?
Beck [Green Stage, 8:30]**
Beck’s headlining set should be a delight. You may be worried that his quiet, acoustic album Morning Phase will dominate the set list, but rest assured he’ll probably only play 3-4 songs from it. The rest will be tons of classics, from “Where It’s At” to “Sexx Laws” to “The New Pollution” and beyond. In other words, there will be no shortage of silly, off-the-wall energy. This is a music festival, and the man knows what the people want to hear. So yes, stick around and enjoy it. Sing or rap along to all the hits. I’ll be right there with you.
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:
My first day ever at SXSW was only a half day really, or even less depending on what you’d call running around from 6PM-2AM. I arrived in Austin late in the afternoon and by the time I’d checked into my hotel and picked up my registration materials from the Conference Center, it was already 6. Have no fear though, that left plenty of time to do a little exploring, get a grasp of the land, and wait in a long line. Here’s a quick summary of what I saw during the evening’s excursions. It should be noted I also took some photos, but forgot to bring my camera cord with me to get them onto my laptop. I’ll have a complete photo wrap-up for you next week then. In the meantime, continue reading.
Originally I had planned to see Santigold perform at the Fader Fort, however I was still getting my bearings and failed to realize where the Fader Fort was located. For the record, it’s about 4 blocks away from most everything else, on the opposite side of the highway. By the time I’d figured that out, Santigold’s set would have been nearly over by the time I got there. Plus, who knows what kind of line there was to get in? The line outside Stubb’s for NPR’s showcase was tremendously long. That’s where I headed after giving up on the Fader Fort (for now). But I was drawn to the NPR showcase thanks to the presence of Fiona Apple and Sharon Van Etten. If I were a less motivated person, I would have stuck around there all night to see sets from Dan Deacon, Alabama Shakes and Andrew Bird. What a great overall lineup. But first, Fiona. I barely made it in the doors before she went on, and so many were excited to see her first major performance in quite awhile. She started her set with “Fast As You Can”, and not seated behind a piano but with a full backing band, she writhed like a woman possessed behind the microphone. There were oh so many highlights from her set, including 3 new songs and positively visceral renditions of “Paper Bag”, “Sleep to Dream”, “Carrion” and “Criminal”. There were a couple moments where she appeared to put a little to much force behind her vocals, causing her to sound just a touch hoarse, but a warm cup of tea was there to help remedy that situation. She got better as the set went on. There were a couple of brief moments of stage banter in which she admitted she’d forgotten whether she’d already sung the second verse of “Paper Bag” because her mind had started to wander before snapping back into place upon remembering she was in the middle of a performance. In all it was a great “comeback” set for Fiona Apple, and one I hope I’ll get to see repeated tomorrow night at Pitchfork’s showcase, assuming I get in.
I stuck around Stubb’s after Fiona Apple because I wanted to catch up with Sharon Van Etten. The last time I saw her live was a couple years ago before her album Epic had been released. Her new full length Tramp is another smart step forwards for her, so I was interested in hearing those new songs performed. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that almost her entire set was Tramp material, and boy does it sound great. She’s got a backing band now, which wasn’t the case when I saw her last, and they do a stellar job both adding to the melodies and filling in vocal harmonies. Particularly affecting were “Warsaw” and “Kevin’s”. While part of me longed to hear “Peace Signs” off Epic, a wish that wasn’t granted, I still walked away very satisfied.
Not to discount Dan Deacon’s live show, but I wanted to do a little exploring after Sharon Van Etten, so I took to the streets in search of sets from Friends at the Hype Hotel or Tennis at Red 7. When I approached both locations, the lines were super long and I didn’t want to have to wait. So luckily I stumbled over to the IFC Crossroads House for some Youth Lagoon. I’ve been wanting to see Trevor Powers for quite some time, and now turned out to be as good of a time as any. He hit all the necessary marks from his debut album The Year of Hibernation, including “Cannons”, “July”, and “Posters”. Color me impressed with his live show, even if he had to pause mid-set when his keyboard’s batteries went dead. Yes, one of his keyboards runs on AA batteries. He tried to joke around about it, but the crowd wasn’t quite laughing. I was amused because they weren’t amused. Dead batteries aside, everything else went swimmingly.
Speaking of swimmingly, things were not going so well over at Kimbra‘s performance at Haven. She was set to go on at midnight, however there were soundcheck issues that delayed its start by 25 minutes. When they finally got things to a level of satisfaction, the band began to play yet there was still no sign of Kimbra. They held a note for a few seconds and she quickly ran on and began to sing. If you’re familiar with Kimbra only through her duet with Gotye on his hit song “Somebody I Used to Know”, now’s the time to get to know her on her own. Wednesday marked her first ever performances in the U.S., and from every indication she’s going to be a star. She was fun, energetic, and possesses an incredible singing voice. She was pitch perfect through the entire set made up of songs from an EP that came out earlier this year along with her debut full length which will be out in May. The old songs are good, and so are the new ones. I commented on my Twitter feed that Kimbra is everything that Lana Del Rey isn’t. To clarify in more than 140 characters, Kimbra has a supreme stage presence, smiles a whole lot, and makes songs that are more compelling than most of Del Rey’s debut. Yet something about Kimbra’s songs left me bored, and I think it was the lack of anything new or innovative about them. They’re pop songs performed with guitars and drums instead of samples and beats. Don’t expect her to earn a big indie following, but do expect her to pick up some serious mainstream heat before the end of 2012.
I thought I’d end my night by keeping the trend of female artists going. Youth Lagoon was an exception, but otherwise it was an all female evening. MNDR was scheduled for a 1AM set, and I was intrigued to see her live for the first time. Her pop songs aren’t entirely my cup of tea, but SXSW is about expanding horizons and finding new talents. Upon arriving at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room where the show was supposed to be, I was shocked to see the venue nearly empty. I was arriving late because Kimbra started and finished late, but it appeared things at Maggie Mae’s were also a bit behind. In a venue that appeared to fit a couple hundred, there were only about 30 people there total, and they were mostly at the bar or sitting at tables. They were frantically setting up the stage for what I assumed would be MNDR, and at about 1:30 things were officially underway. I’m no MNDR expert, but I could have sworn Amanda Warner was blonder and less strange than the brunette singing these songs. Okay, they were less actual songs and more sonic experiments, complete with vocal echo effects that turned deciphering lyrics into a fruitless endeavor. I’m going to go ahead and clarify now that while I thought it may have been MNDR performing, I found out afterwards it was not. MNDR didn’t show up for her set. The duo known as Tearist took her time slot. Yasmine Kittles fronts Tearist, and they consider themselves to be avant-pop. That’s an accurate description of what they do. I also suspect she was either on something, incredibly drunk, or simply angry at the small crowd watching the performance. Either way, she had a scowl on her face most of the time, thrashed around like she was being tortured, and stumbled and fell into the back wall behind the stage once or twice. She took a sip of beer at one point, and it looked like she was having trouble swallowing it. Towards the end of the set she brought out a metal beam and a lead pipe, beating and scraping them against one another in the most grating ways possible. Her bandmate William Menchaca stood on the side the whole time, putting together the beats and synths for the songs but looking just a touch embarrassed by the whole thing. Crazy and weird as the whole thing was, part of me thinks that’s what every Tearist performance is like. If so, it’s a shitshow to behold. They’re taking performance art to Bradford Cox and “My Sharona” sort of levels. Part of me wants to go and see another of their shows to see if it’s any different than the one late Wednesday night. Part of me is also turned off by it. Which side will win? Let’s find out together as this crazy SXSW week continues.
The first time I saw and heard Sharon Van Etten was at the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, in which she had the “honor” of being the first artist to perform that year. The issue of course is that at 3PM on a Friday afternoon, most attendees were either still at work or simply hadn’t made their way past the front gates yet. In other words, it made for one of the most sparsely attended sets of the weekend. Those that were there in time though were treated to one of the most endearing sets of the 3-day fest and a proper introduction to a major new singer-songwriter talent. Her first proper album Epic had not yet been released, and she had no backing band, so the reality of it was one woman playing a bunch of songs nobody had heard before to a crowd of about 100 people. And you know what? You could barely hear a sound other than what was coming out of the speakers. That’s not because they were loud, but because everyone was quiet and attentive and completely taken in by a truly lone wolf performance. In the middle of it, one of the strings on her guitar broke, and she didn’t have a replacement, so Modest Mouse (headlining that night) lent her one of theirs. Effortlessly charming was a good way to describe it, and in some ways that set suggested the birth of a star. Epic would go on to critical praise and moderate success, and Van Etten made a whole lot of important friends thanks in no small part to incessant touring.
The National’s Aaron Dessner was one of Sharon Van Etten’s earliest supporters, and was so swayed by the Epic track “Love More” that he performed a cover of it at the 2010 MusicNow Festival with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That developed into a friendship and a working collaboration, as Dessner produced Van Etten’s new record Tramp. The recording sessions were sporadic over a year, scheduled between touring responsibilities for the both of them. Van Etten also found herself courted by a record label or two, eventually choosing to sign with indie superlabel Jagjaguwar, which is a strong match to her style of music and increased visibility. She chose to title her new album Tramp as a comment on the transient lifestyle she’s been leading the last couple years. Touring is one aspect of it, but she’s also not had a permanent residence in awhile, instead bouncing from couch to couch, friend to friend and sublet to sublet when she needs to stay anywhere for longer than a day or two. As she puts it, the decision ultimately came down to either paying rent on an apartment, or keeping her backing band. Things have been better in recent months however, and she’s been able to find a place in Brooklyn to call home even as she prepares to hit the road for another few months of touring in support of the album.
Things are also getting better on record as well, as Tramp sees Van Etten truly growing out her voice and overall sound into a much stronger and more collaborative effort overall. For the first time, she truly sounds comfortable in her own skin, as if she just needed the right people around her to get all the pieces perfectly in place. She’s been building towards such a sonic revelation across her previous two releases, and now that she’s finally reached that healthy place seems more determined than ever to make it count for something. Opening track “Warsaw” holds a remarkably dark bounce to it, the main electric guitar chords bearing a surprisingly strong resemblance to some of the more angular approaches used by Nirvana in reworking some of their songs for the Unplugged record. Perhaps the song that best echoes Van Etten’s growth is first single “Serpents”, which is a beast of a composition that intertwines multiple guitar parts, militaristic drumming from Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, and full-on overdubbed vocal harmonies. It’s beautiful and sad, but has serious muscle to it, a display of aggression that was only been hinted at up until that point. Not everything on the album is so intricately constructed and energetic though. The balladry of “Kevin’s” comes soberingly close to the sparse solo guitar and vocal of Van Etten’s earlier material, as does the late album drama of “Ask”. Other songs like “All I Can” and “I’m Wrong” take a more subtle approach and build steadily over their duration. The bright energy and use of ukulele on “Leonard” brings a decidedly Beirut-esque feel to the track, and it’s almost a disappointment when a horn section doesn’t emerge to buttress the melody. But speaking of Beirut, Zach Condon does make a guest appearance on the equally ukulele driven “We Are Fine”, a song about overcoming social anxiety. The track’s positive message is that much more engaging and beautiful thanks to Condon’s backing harmonies and solo vocal on a verse. Additional contributions come from Julianna Barwick and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, among others, and each does a superb job whether you notice their presence or not.
At the core of Tramp are Van Etten’s lyrics, the topics of which haven’t really changed much since her earliest days. Romance tends to be her favorite vice, and the highs and mostly lows of relationships is something she continues to explore. On “Give Out” she bluntly sings, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/or why I’ll need to leave.” Yet sometimes she takes the blame for a failed relationship herself, as on “Leonard” when she musters up the courage to say, “I am bad at loving you.” One thing you’re almost guaranteed with any Sharon Van Etten record is that she’ll be very frank and up front about her thoughts and emotions. It’s just nice at times to not have to wade through symbols and extraneous wordplay while trying to decipher the songwriter’s true intentions. And Sad though many of the sentiments might be, often made sadder by the heartbreak evident in Van Etten’s voice, this album isn’t about the destruction of relationships. It’s actually about the lessons we learn in the aftermath of those tragic moments. “I want my scars to help and heal,” she confesses on “All I Can”, the implication being that the wounds of past loves will hopefully assist in finding someone new and better. Couple that with a song like “We Are Fine” and the theme becomes moving on and forward. Funny, because Van Etten is not only doing that lyrically but sonically as well, and the combination makes for her finest record to date. She’s come quite a long way from just a couple years ago playing unreleased music all alone on a festival stage. To say she’s earned the success that continues to come her way would be quite an understatement.
“At Female Singer-Songwriters Incorporated, we’re aware that you have about a million choices when it comes to ladies with guitars or piano, which is why it’s our goal to only point you towards the best and brightest of the bunch.”
If only such a service existed, it’d make for a much easier time sifting through the massive stockpile of women that rock, from the hardest of the hard to the softest of the soft. So in this era where everybody wants a slice of the pie, how is one to choose the females that stand out from the crowd? A good record label helps, the thought being that if their discerning ears have given a certain artist a thumbs up, they’re at least worth a quick listen. Unless you’re a blogger, you probably aren’t getting the dozen emails each day from ladies that sat down in their bedrooms with an instrument and a microphone hoping their songs would get heard. That’s part of how an artist like tUnE-yArDs was discovered, but it is by no means a guaranteed model for success. The reality of today’s music scene, for any artist looking to make it really, is word of mouth. When considering the women specifically that achieve some form of success, be it Cat Power or Feist, there are key tracks or full records that just stand out from the competition thanks in large part to a publicity machine that moves to the next level with critical acclaim. All that being said, Sharon Van Etten caught a bit of luck on her debut album “Because I Was In Love” last year, earning strong reviews and healthy buzz thanks to a highly expressive singing voice and strong songwriting. She further boosted her cred by getting a coveted invite to this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Armed with just an electric guitar, she had the very first set on the very first day and pulled it off brilliantly, even when her guitar string broke and she didn’t have a spare. That set was also heavy on new material, much of which appears on her just released sophmore album “Epic”.
What’s somewhat amusing about the album title “Epic” is that the music contained within is anything but. Of course compared to Van Etten’s previous album, these new songs are huge. Weighing in at only 7 tracks and with a length of barely over 30 minutes, some EPs have those specs. Ultimately though, if you’re limiting yourself to such a short period of time, two things should come out of it. First, every second should have an explicit and strong purpose. Wasting time on the shortest of short albums is like filling up on bread at a restaurant before the main course arrives. Secondly, with such a concise record it needs to have a good repeat value to the point where you’re left wanting more and the only solution is to start the whole thing over again. Sharon Van Etten might not make the breeziest and most upbeat songs in the world, but her talent oozes all over “Epic” and makes those important factors a priority.
Opening with the acoustic break-up ballad “A Crime”, the immediate impression one might get is that “Epic” will be an effortless sequel to her debut “Because I Was In Love”. The track does have a lot of the elements that make Van Etten great, but what it ultimately lacks are the wonderful things she does with the following six tracks. Once “Peace Sign” arrives with a full band, live drums and a decent-sized hook, it’s almost like the dawning of a new era. It’s an uptempo rock song that’s one of the most compelling things Van Etten has written to date. One of the most remarkable things about the track is how close it comes to spinning off the rails into a full-on jam session but doesn’t quite make it there on purpose. The show of restraint is the lynchpin that strongly contributes to making this song so good. Slide guitar and piano enter the fray for the alt-country cut “Save Yourself”, which contains faint echoes of Neko Case in all the right ways. After the initial verse and chorus pass by, the song moves to the next level by incorporating multi-part harmonies and vocal overdubs that are nothing short of gorgeous. As a mid-album anchor, the 6-minute “Dsharpg” feels mostly like an extended pathway connecting the two halves of the record. It’s not a throwaway track by any means, but it’s primarily a showcase for Van Etten’s awesome vocal power. There are some wavy synths and electronic haze keeping a solid background melody throughout, and the percussion work is limited to a couple sparse tambourine and drum hits. “Don’t Do It” makes a couple minor mistakes mostly in how it’s written and executed. The song feels almost forcibly hook-baited, as the chorus gets repeated over and over and over again across the 5 minutes with wordplay simple enough to stick in your head after the second run-through. Lines like “and you want to do it/if you want to do it/you are going to do it/even if i don’t want you to” come off as kind of uninspired and lazy. Van Etten does her best with it vocally though, and despite the apparent faults it’s tough to be too hard on it. The bright shining moment on the second half of the record lands with the full force of “Love More”. It’s another singing showcase as the track starts off with up-front vocals and wavy synths a la “Dsharpg” earlier in the record. Things slowly build as double and triple harmonies penetrate into the mix, followed shortly thereafter by guitar, bass and drums. Some have said the song has a very Jeff Buckley vibe to it, and that’s by no means a stretch of the truth. There’s not a much better way to close out the album.
So amid the current chart of female singer-songwriters, where does somebody like Sharon Van Etten stand? With “Epic”, she takes a good few steps forward in the direction of future indie star. Her songwriting remains strong for the most part, and strong/emotionally resonant vocals really help to separate her from most of her peers. She’s not quite at a Neko Case or Cat Power-like level of love and respect just yet, but she’s definitely getting closer. The backing of a label like Ba Da Bing has allowed her to flesh out her sound a bit further, incorporating a few more instruments than on her debut. The exploration of these new sounds remains in a largely safe (read: not risky or experimental) area, but no matter how normal-sounding this record might be, it’s anything but thanks to Van Etten’s sharp talent. For those of you looking for a great female singer-songwriter record this year, “Epic” is one of the stronger entries into that ever-expansive canyon. There’s very little reason you shouldn’t pick this album up, in particular because if you’re going digital it’ll only cost you $5 when you factor in the two songs you can download right below for free. The savings, to put it bluntly, are nothing short of epic.