I have this theory: like most things, greatness at music generally* requires an alloy of natural talent, providence, and an Outliers-like tenacity requiring 10 years hard labor in dingy crackerbox clubs, or snagging a Best New Music on Pitchfork–whichever comes first. The corollary being that forming a mediocre “indie” band is one of the easiest things to do, save for possibly Countrywide Mortgage jockey (00-07), cast member of Sunset Tan (R.I.P.), and professional music scribe.
Stumbling through the Austin Convention Center Wednesday morning seemed to bear out this half-baked hypothesis. Bands everywhere. Big ones. Short ones. Tatted ones. Bearded ones. Mustached ones. Mutton-chopped ones. Should the combination of global warming and nuclear winter ever turn America into a frozen tundra, it's nice to know that the flannel-clad masses will keep cozy while churning out recycled riffs from Modest Mouse, Pavement, and R.E.M. Skulking woe-be-gone troubadours loomed around every corner, guitar strapped to their backs, scowl scarring their faces, “Will Ape the Jesus and Mary Chain for Food,” intent evident in their eyes.
* Barring obvious Mozart-like prodigy.
Not to imply that every band at SXSW is some trust-funded and frail mediocrity–just a good proportion. You can tell the trash immediately too–they're the publicity-starved simps who plaster cheap handbills all over the Convention Center. The challenge at a cluster-fuck like this is digging for that increasingly rare phenomenon in this blog age: the unknown but great groups. Moreover, you have to do this by resisting the easy temptation of embodying everything Hipster Runoff aptly lampooned here. Truthfully, it's a lot harder than it looks. Do you pass up seeing some King Kong destruction from a hyped band like The Dirty Projectors or Grizzly Bear to yawn at a fleet of
foxes unknowns. Do you skip your blogger pal's parties to attend a Scottish soiree featuring bands with bagpipe solos. Who the fuck knows and really, who cares? This isn't exactly neuroscience (no Andrew Bird). If you miss a band's set, you'll only have seven more chances to catch them over the course of the next three days.
So if over the course of the next 72 hours, I descend into even more of an elitist vortex than normal, forgive me. I'm doing my best, and godknows it's not hard to top the rest of the sickly schlubs I saw yesterday. Withered radio DJ's rocking out-moded sunglasses indoors, dizzy magazine journal-whores, sundry hangers-on, scrambling to claim their badges, letting the freebie SXSW messenger bags slash across their bodies, yielding the deleterous effect of grown adults appearing as though they're bucking for Weeblo Merit Patches in archery. A dinotherium deluge of laminated lanyards proudly displaying everyone's media affiliation–save for me, obviously, on some self-righteous LA bullshit. But at least I don't look like a frosh-soph protagonist of an Asher Roth “jawn.” I even saw one guy with a lanyard, plus Dawson's Creek strap bag, plus t-shirt that read: Sumner, Morris, Hook, Curtis. If only he'd taken Ian's tacit advice and dug out The Idiot.
Enough of this sallow jaw-jacking–after all, this is about music not meandering, and though initial chagrined at the overwhelming onslaught of beardos blighting one narrow axis, SXSW presents the unmatched opportunity to see tons of great music, provided you avoid The Von Bondies. Considering that it's well past noon, and I've already squandered the last hour with a needlessly antagonizing introduction, here are day one's highlights, pared down for time concerns.
Max Tundra (Force Field/Terror Bird Party)
Max Tundra: David Cross doppelganger, falsetto king, schizo-pop premier, turned in the set of the afternoon at the Force Field PR party at Red 7. Signed to Domino and bestowed with rave reviews, Tundra isn't exactly a secret among the black-plastic-glasses masses, yet he's enjoyed little of the cross-over success enjoyed by his dance-pop peers. Maybe it's that there's something too heady to his ritalin-addled assault that turns him from a respectably polite Brit, into something resembling what happened in Reefer Madness when they started burning joints and playing the old Baby-Grand. A one-man show flush with flat-palmed and furious keyboard solos, Fisher Price piano tinkering, xylophone plinks, and melodica asidesl–think Dan Deacon, but with less pit-stains and far less cloying. Pop but de-bugged nd re-wired in gorgeous, schizophrenic fashion–by Max Tundra for the Max Fischers.
Yoni Wolf of Why? (Force Field/Terror Bird)
The front-man of Why? delivering a solo set because (according to him), his brother moved to the Florida Panhandle and the other dude in Why? moved to Berlin. OK. So with pawn shop keyboards and adenoidal Bar-Mitzvah whine, the Anticon artist unveiled new Why? cuts (new album in September) and songs from Alopecia, their 2008 classic that too few people acknowledged as such. I understand why people might not be down with Wolf's classic insular Jewish kvetching straight out of Woody Allen or Phillip Roth. At its heart, Alopecia is about that most predictable theme: Jewish neurotic and his romantic foibles with shiksa women.
This is Slug for post-grad students. You're a little older, wiser, more cynical, with a few more tattoos. Or maybe he's David Berman for kids weaned on hip-hop. Either way, I'm convinced that Wolf is one of the finest lyricists we've got right now. If only, it were possible to sing along to his songs without getting morbidly embarrassed for everyone involved.
Fellow Anticon artists, Themselves followed Wolf and deserve mention in their own right. The duo of Dose One (of Subtle fame) and Jel just droped the excellent FreeHoudini tape last week, and live, their performance was everything you'd expect from a Scribble Jam vet signed to Anticon. Ferocious double-timed raps performed by a guy in a Mohawk and argyle vest. I understand (and don't really blame) people who are put off by that, but if you can get past the aesthetic challenges posed, this is highly progressive hip-hop, and for once, I don't mean that as a perjorative.
The Coathangers/Cotton Jones (Suicide Squeeze Showcase)
The dirty South incarnation of the Vivian Girls or the female version of the Black Lips, straight from the ATL, The Coathangers, play a snarling amalgam of flower-punk, X-Ray Spex, and Dick Dale. Surf guitars glitter with psychedelic sheen, Poly Styrene shouts, and grungy, writhing riot grrls covered in sleeves of colored tattoos. Picture something like that Shannon Elizabeth-led van of jewel thieves that Jay and Silent Bob encounter in their eponoymous “Strike Back”film, except rather than being a bunch of dim-witted yo-yos, they're cool punk rock chicks who would throw a kidney punches to your shit, should you cross them with an improper array of adjectives. Should this combustible crew stick together, great things could follow. Plus, they made fun of Papa Roach on-stage–a cheap, but always effective route to approbation. Oh, and they're fucking called The Coathangers. That shit makes “The Circle Jerks” look like “Peter, Paul, and Mary.”
I won't lie–Cotton Jones, the band whom I came to the Suicide Squeeze showcase to see in the first place, were a little disappointing. Not bad, just underwhelming. Think My Morning Jacket's low-budget Maryland equivalent, but with more of a pronounced Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazlewood influence. It's not necessarily Cotton Jones' fault–their Paranoid Cocoon album is one of my five favorite of the young year and absent the oceans of reverb, hayseed mystery, and melancholy that the album engenders, it felt slightly flat. I'll surely give them another chance when they come through L.A, it's just that the Coathangers's ampetamine jag left me wanting throw chairs through plate-glass windows, not watch hipster-cowboys ride ponies (yes, Ginuwine).
Mojoe (Bavu's Revue & The Bloom Effect Present SXSW Soul)
Mojoe can't decide whether they're a hip-hop band, a funk band, or an R&B ensemble,but it doesn't matter, they're great at all three. Backed by a six-piece band, San Antonians Easy Lee and T.R.R.E., describe themselves, “as The Roots meet Outkast over dinner with Marvin Gaye at D'Angelo's house…a party that anyone in their right mind would want to attend, a free-form jam with only the tastiest beats, rhymes, and harmonies, not to mention words and rhymes that really echo the barometer of urban life.”
Sounds like arguably the corniest thing ever, except that well, the description is kind of true. Mojoe were easily the highlight of the Festival's first day. The friend who I'm staying with also hails from the land of Tim Duncan, but had never heard of them in his life. Neither had I. But I'll certainly be following them from hear on out. Ultimately, that's the beautiful thing about this place, for all the banality you have to sift through and all the over-rated Internet buzz bands, every hour possesses the potential to turn you onto the next best thing. Even if they let Fastball play.