March 17 through 20, Austin, Texas, at various venues

At this year’s SXSW indie-music fest, a line snaking for blocks outside the tiny Red Eyed Fly venue could mean only that some of those almost-famous upstarts from New York City were tearing it up inside. First up, Ambulance Ltd.: four young Brooklynites with gorgeous pouts, cordial pop songs and an insufferable sense of self-involvement. Though they clawed furiously at their instruments, their rave-ups lacked shape and danger.

Scene peers Stellastarr likewise looked lost in their own, not unpretty, soundscapes. Yet the frantically distorted guitars and the front man’s strangulated new-wave ululations added up to a fuzzily retro, kind of blah effect. Hey, NYC: Is this it?

At Emo’s, the Stills (Big Apple via Montreal) stretched some fancy footwork with guitar pedals into a serviceable art-rock set that felt interminable — maybe because one could never make out the lyrics. Still, the Stills had oodles of soul compared to the Fever, an NYC “dance rock” band with screechy vocals and the mojo of an aesthetic experiment performed in vitro.

There was fun to be had, too. Brooklyn’s Rogers Sisters (the tip o’ the fest, from Sire Records founder Seymour Stein) got frisky with some fresh, exotic guitar noises. And Las Vegas’ the Killers, who wore dapper suits and rocked a giddy sound shamelessly derivative of Duran Duran, made important people dance at the Spin party at Stubb’s. The best thing about them, though, is the title of their upcoming major-label debut: Hot Fuss.

SXSW is by definition a whole lotta hot fuss, this year more than ever the byproduct of buzzing online music blogs. In a cycle of consumer fervor lifted from and augmented by U.K. music mags, the bloghorrea props up new, often NYC-centric indie groups every nanosecond. And why not? Today’s underground pop-rock crop is ludicrously easy to pigeonhole and write about. Unfortunately there are too many obvious references, too much preening, too much distortion and, frankly, too many freakin’ notes to make the new noise memorable. (Keep it simple, and you won’t risk sounding dated when you haven’t even happened yet.)

Now a word about those striving to transcend, not merely master, the established form. Cincinnati’s Greenhornes, recently pared down to a trio, achieved unpretentious perfection with their austere blues-rock. Chicago’s the Ponys, performing literally with their backs against a rock wall at Club DeVille’s Insound bash, personalized noisy riffage with unexpected spurts of post-punk awkwardness that threatened to dislodge the boulders overhead. Unleashed through sweat-soaked bangs, the Von Bondies’ soulful, tragic rock & roll never sounded insincere: Time and again, it was the hard-working Midwesterners who provided the passionate kicks. (It’s cuz the others “don’t hate like we hate in Detroit,” mused one attendee.)

In the year when L.A. bands got aggro (vaudevillian Har Mar Superstar beat up a heckler, and a member of Ozomatli got arrested for throwing a drum head at the fuzz), others (the Starlite Desperation) hammed it up entertainingly; yet others (the Bronx) barked that old punk litany with awesome energy.

For their gig at Stubb’s, the Hives were a white whirlwind of smoking jackets, gangster wingtips and brain-searing riffs. Their rock-cum-standup-comedy got everybody

drunk with excitement. At Emo’s “Take Action” party, fellow Swedes the (International) Noise Conspiracy premiered a Rick Rubin–produced song called “Under a Communist Moon,” demonstrating that somewhere in this bullshit world, people still dream about the future.

As for Newcastle Hessians the Wildhearts, resplendent in tattoos, leather and animal pelts, they were content to satisfy their audience. After humbly apologizing for their drum kit “being a cunt,” these true hearts let the Ramones choruses flow and the Spinal Tap spirit take over. “Bad luck follows us everywhere, and we still kick ass!” intoned their front man.

Even when it sucks, SXSW rocks.


at the Troubadour, March 19

Halfway through Franz Ferdinand’s sold-out L.A. club debut, front man Alex Kapranos wondered, “Where’s that fellow who always says he wants to fuck us?” The quartet wear their Next Big Thing mantle lightly, but it’s hard to discern the shape (much less the sound) of the band underneath. Are they heirs to a line of Scots you either worship or have never heard of — Josef K, the Fire Engines, Nectarine No. 9, all invoked by KCRW jock Eric J. Lawrence’s introduction? Or beneficiaries of rock critics’ tendency to slaver over anything that depresses the lever marked “post-punk”?

Neither: They’re a developing band with some great songs, some poor ones, and a rhythm section strong enough to make a crowd dance to both. Bassist Bob Hardy and ex–Yummy Fur drummer Paul Thomson stoked improved versions of weak album tracks (“Auf Achse,” “This Fire”), and all four locked into the distinctive slowdown of “Take Me Out.” Their showmanship was up from Monday’s jet-lagged Amoeba in-store, as well. Kapranos switched between sweeping gestures (Bowie) and jerky almost-dancing (Byrne), while “Michael” enacted an arena-ready guitar duel — back-to-back, even — with Nick McCarthy. Though this presentation barely related to songs that largely concern being unloved and underemployed in Glasgow, the little girls understood.

The Tyde, featuring Darren and Brent Rademaker (Further, Beachwood Sparks) and Ric Menck (Velvet Crush), could be bitter about being openers, but it’s not in them. Their ’60s-schooled originals are the work of veterans settling on the style they’ve loved the longest, and a closing cover of “Look Back in Anger,” by U.K. grandpunks Television Personalities, was a welcoming nod to the headliners. Still, tonight’s standout was “Blood Brothers,” with a repeated line about “25 years in a band” contrasting starkly with the feted foreigners’ 18 months. (Franklin Bruno)

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