South by Southwest 2010 just wrapped up in Austin, Texas, leaving a tidal wave of ringing ears, exhausted bands, and permanently hungover attendees in its wake. I enjoy being a skeptic (and, perhaps, a cynic) about the value that SXSW can provide to any band hoping to set itself apart from the 1000+ other groups playing shows during the week, but the fact remains that I saw a ton of exciting new music over the past week.
Lo-fi sounds continue to dominate blog buzz, which meant that everyone-and-their-mothers' garage-inspired groups were performing in Austin this year. Despite the overwhelming amount of bands crafting reverby pop, a few definitely managed to stand out. I'd seen New Jersey's Real Estate in SF earlier, but also caught one of the band's ten shows at SXSW. The quartet's self-titled record is excellent and their live performances vibrantly capture its beach pop jangle.
The real discovery for me on the lo-fi front has to be Los Angeles' Dum Dum Girls, whose debut full length comes out on Sub Pop at the end of the month. Of the many '60s-referencing bands around today, the Girls may be the most truly Spectorian, a group of impeccably dressed attractive women who play crazy-catchy backbeat-driven songs with strong three part harmonies. While the band members' outfits were more goth than girl group, their lyrics seize on the melodrama intrinsic to both genres. Despite the girl group feel, there's no Svengali at work behind the scenes -- the band emerged from the solo writing and recording of leader Dee Dee, who appropriately deems the band's sound "blissed-out buzz saw."
On the Bay Area front, SXSW couldn't have been better positioned for the Berkeley-born The Morning Benders, whose new album Big Echo was deemed "Best New Music" by Pitchfork just as the festival began. The overwhelmingly positive press for Big Echo is well-earned. It's a terrifically lush and ambitious album that reinvents a band known for Beatles-esque linear pop-rock as one more interested in ambitious atmospheric indie rock. I caught the band's first SXSW show on Wednesday, which, although hampered by some sound issues and cut too short, still managed to offer pieces of the new record's grand, haunting swells. Better to check them out, I think, on the band's headlining national tour, which comes to San Francisco on March 31st.
SXSW also offers me an opportunity to offer a mea culpa to The xx, the British band who has soared to prominence on their 2009 debut, xx. I'll confess to being a little underwhelmed by the record, given all of the hype, but I found myself quite impressed by a live set I caught last week. The record's got plenty of perfectly catchy songs, but it's also incredibly understated for my liking. Live, however, the bass and live-triggered drums are louder, more throbbing and insistent, making for a highly enjoyable set that felt human and vulnerable. When I listen to the album next, I'm planning on messing with my stereo to try and duplicate the same results.
Not every set, though, was similarly revelatory. One of the most buzzed-about acts Broken Bells, the new collaborative effort between producer Danger Mouse and The Shins' James Mercer, left me surprisingly indifferent. Beyond the pedigree, I'm truly confused about the hype here, as the project seems to have neither Danger Mouse's skill for creative sounds (demonstrated best in his work with Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz) nor The Shins' sublimely upbeat hooks. Instead, the group seems mired in a mid-tempo drudge that's not bad so much as it is unmemorable.
A better new band to check out would be Freelance Whales, whose debut album Weathervanes gets reissued on Frenchkiss/Mom and Pop on April 13th. Splitting the difference between big-sounding chamber rock bands like The Arcade Fire and more intimate ones like The Hidden Cameras, Freelance Whales layer keyboards, guitars, a banjo and a harmonium under some great group vocals. It's all very, very catchy, even, perhaps, a little twee, but I think everyone needs a little sugar in their diets.
But a diet doesn't need too much Tex-Mex or barbecue, two delicious tastes I'll be happy to avoid for another year until the allure of seeing another 70+ bands in 4 days becomes too much to resist and I'm once again back in Texas. You win again, South by Southwest.
Ben Van Houten is the Programming Director for The Bay Bridged.