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West Coast Sound: An L.A. Music Pro's Guide to South by Southwest 

Ten to watch: The next Ford jingle?

Wednesday, Mar 11 2009
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At least 171 Los Angeles–area acts will represent at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, next week, and they range from metal (Ancestors, Metallica, Black Math Horseman), acoustic (Jim Bianco, Tom Brosseau, Tori Amos) and punk (Japanese Motors, the Mae Shi, DEVO) to hip-hop (Blu, U-N-I, Busdriver), guitar rock (Red Cortez, Mika Miko, Silversun Pickups) and beyond (Crystal Antlers, Pocahaunted, Magic Lantern, Sun Araw). To look at the list in its entirety is to at least partially understand the depth of music emanating from LA.

Here are 10 fantastic Los Angeles bands or solo artists playing the annual party this year. Some are a little bigger than others, some signed, some unsigned, all no doubt ready and willing to accept your money in any way, shape or form. So if you’re headed to Austin looking to license or otherwise contractually obligate some musicians, searching for the perfect breakup song to augment the closing credits of your nighttime hospital drama, or simply want to see some great live music in Texas, here’s a shortlist. (We’ve included a few useful tips for the music supervisors among you.)

 

click to flip through (2) Emily Wells
  • Emily Wells
 
 

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FOL CHEN

MySpace-profile views: 77,446

L.A.’s best new band? Probably. Fol Chen’s beguiling, witty synth-pop with guitar, funky keyboards and West Coastian harmonies comes from a semimysterious unit that, according to its bio, sounds like “that mysterious black object that the creepy family is staring at on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Presence album.” Featuring principal Samuel Bing, who may not be either a relation to or impersonator of the visionary early-20th-century Parisian art dealer, the band even has a plot line: “We are using secret powers and the guidance of legendary DJ Donna Donna to combat our nemesis, John Shade. We are cryptic and joyful and we would like you to dance.” Fol Chen’s debut, Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made, just came out on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label.

Commercial-placement idea: “Cable TV” is a latent hit, for sure — and perfect for a Holiday Inn ad: “Won’t you come away with me?/I’m not rich but the first night is on me/You know I just got paid baby/I know a place and they got cable TV.”

 

WHISPERTOWN 2000

MySpace-profile views: 785,217

One listen to “No Dope,” Whispertown 2000’s melancholy ode to lost love and hard drugs, should pull any first-timer into the magnetic orbit of this smart, tight and thoughtful country-rock band. A viewing of their “Old Times” video will only draw you in further. Singer Morgan Nadler is a natural. She’s got the vocal talent, wit and charisma to carry the songs, and she’s got connections — Whispertown came up with the Rilo Kiley posse, and she counts Gillian Welch among her admirers. The band, comprised of some of L.A.’s most solid and efficient players, beautifully augments her voice.

Commercial-placement idea: Their “103” could be used in a Sunday AIG insurance ad during Meet the Press: “When I’m 102/will the sky be blue/Will the night be long?/When I’m 103/will you still like me/when my body is gone?”

 

EMILY WELLS

MySpace-profile views: 213,830

Emily Wells is a wonder to behold, a multi-instrumentalist who moves from violin to sampler with the greatest of ease, who cites Outkast, Aphex Twin and Matmos among her influences, but who doesn’t mimic, overdo or overproduce. She makes funky beats using analog reverb and, as a string player, understands and appreciates the art of arranging better than most guitarists. Her self-released The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties is a humble affair that’s crafted with just enough ornamentation to offer a hint at what Wells might accomplish in more grandiose surroundings.

Commercial-placement idea: “Juicy,” a riff on MTume’s soft funk classic “Juicy Fruit,” is perfect for a chewing-gum spot.

 

TWEAK BIRD

MySpace-Profile Views: 104,161

Nothing like a chubby, shirtless drummer to confirm that a band isn’t messing around, and when said rocker, Ashton, is coupled with scrawny, bespectacled, yowling younger brother Caleb, the result is the fraternal freak show that is Tweak Bird. The two-piece delivers deep sludge rock à la Melvins, Karp and Black Sabbath, but through brains, brawn and Caleb’s sinister falsetto, has carved out its own little nook.

Commercial-placement idea: “Whorses” — Ford Mustang cruising along PCH through the fog as the waves splat against the rocks: “Leaving all the space behind/everyone’s amazed!”

 

FOREIGN BORN

MySpace-profile views: 201,691

If you’re an indie-guitar fan, you’ve probably heard of Foreign Born, which has been one of L.A.’s most promising guitar bands for almost too long now. The band released its debut full-length, On the Wing Now, in 2007 on Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak imprint. But despite the grand, epic scope of its songs, the record didn’t really catch on. The good news is that Foreign Born has finally found a perfect home on the Secretly Canadian label, and is preparing release of its follow-up. The better news is that the first single, “Vacationing People,” has just been released, and sounds at once like the Flying Burrito Brothers, Neil Young and early R.E.M., but with more asymmetrical tonalities.

Commercial-placement idea: “Vacationing People” works for Carnival Cruises: Waves crash; “I sailed away on the brightest day,” sings Matt Popieluch, and you’re ready for total relaxation.

 

FRANK FAIRFIELD

MySpace-profile views: 36,398

Is it any surprise that there’s a current resurgence in old, weird, depression-era country-blues players? Dark times breed dark music, and Frank Fairfield delivers a sound as old as America. His first single, released as a vinyl 45 on the respected folk label Tompkins Square, features Fairfield on acoustic guitar and banjo conjuring Frank Hutchison, Dock Boggs and other early-20th-century singers who straddled Appalachian folk and delta blues. If at times he’s so true to his roots that he risks straying into the realm of mimicry, Fairfield’s guitar playing and songwriting transcend suspicion.

Commercial-placement idea: His version of “Mole in the Ground” would sell many bottles of Dr. Yellowstone’s Wizard Oil, a liniment used to help treat consumption and piles.

 

EDWARD SHARPE AND THE MAGNETIC ZEROS

MySpace plays: 90,856

Edward Sharpe is the nom de rock of Alex Ebert, whose other outfit, Ima Robot, trades in synthetic/electric buzz punk. With the Magnetic Zeros, however, Sharpe/Ebert offers something much more organic, and thrilling: a dozen-odd-member collective of acoustic and electric guitars, violin, trumpet, accordion and percussion (this being Topanga country, bongos are involved). The ragtag group looks a little like Dexys Midnight Runners, and features members moonlighting from, among other L.A. outfits, the Airborne Toxic Event, Fool’s Gold and Amnion.

Commercial-placement idea: Their “Home,” with the inspiring refrain, “Home is whenever I’m with you,” could be perfect for a Mr. Clean kitchen-floor-cleaner commercial.

 

NITE JEWEL

MySpace-profile views: 88,324

Nite Jewel is part of a fascinating little scene of lo-fi cheesy dance music coming out of one corner of L.A.’s art scene, one that has strong connections to the Italians Do It Better world of New York City — but way more oblique and interesting. The pseudonym of young artist and philosophy student Ramona Gonzales, Nite Jewel crafts semiclumsy dance funk that feels like it was discovered in the disco trunk of your parents’ attic. Gonzales cites Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Debbie Deb and New Jack Swing among her influences, but, like her Angeleno peers Ariel Pink and (the überfascinating) Geneva Jacuzzi, records strictly on a portable 8-track cassette deck. As a result, her bass-kicks don’t thump, they plop, and her synthetic snare snap sounds like an old New Order drum pattern. The whole thing is incredibly artificial, but intentionally and interestingly so.

Commercial-placement idea: Watch the remarkable video for “Artificial Intelligence,” directed by Travis Morrison, then tell me that Pepto Bismol doesn’t have a new Super Bowl halftime spot.

 

THE SOFT PACK

MySpace-profile views: 420,556

The first time I saw the Soft Pack was at the Fuck Yeah! Fest in Echo Park last summer, when they were still called the Muslims and I’d only heard rumors. Within 10 seconds I knew they understood how to make rock & roll. Like the Modern Lovers, the Replacements and the New Bomb Turks, but not derivatively so, the Soft Pack — currently touring Europe with Franz Ferdinand — understand the power of simplicity and intent. Some bands step onstage and try to convince the audience of their worthiness to be up there. Other bands love rock & roll, and love playing it, and don’t need to convince anybody. They perform because it’s an awesome thing to do and it makes you feel good; they understand the secret truth that voice and confidence are not just half, but the entire rock & roll battle. If you’ve got them both you’ve got it made, and fuck the haters if they can’t see it.

Commercial-placement idea: “The Parasites,” with the lyrics, “I see you poltergeists, yeah you’re waiting out back,” would be good for Off! mosquito repellent.

 

DAWES

MySpace-profile views: 123,340

Dawes could only spring from Los Angeles, or at least possesses that certain magical harmony and appreciation of wide-open spaces, rolling waves and Pacific breezes that’s inspired musicians for decades. Drawing from the same well that delivered us Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes, and springing from the same Topanga/Americana scene that supports Jonathan Rice, Jonathan Wilson and Jenny Lewis, Dawes touches on the same vibe using piano, guitar, bass and gorgeous harmonies. But where BoH and FF generously borrow from that California sound, Dawes breathes it.

Commercial-placement idea: “Take Me Out of the City” would be good for a VW ad where a bunch of people are cruising at night through the desert looking for a party, but then decide to keep driving and listening to music.

Reach the writer at rroberts@laweekly.com

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