In the 1980s, when “alternative rock” connoted something other than a marketing template, the boutique London-based record label 4AD was one of the most distinctive labels around. Bands like This Mortal Coil, the Cocteau Twins, Wolfgang Press, and the Breeders didn’t necessarily all sound alike, but there was an aesthetic consistency to 4AD releases that made the label a trusted source for seekers of new sounds.
After that early heyday, 4AD registered as a smaller blip on the hipster radar, but now the label is back at the fore, with newer artists like Bon Iver, M. Ward, and the National bringing back its cutting-edge reputation. A 4AD showcase at the 2009 South by Southwest made a convincing case that it fully deserves its recaptured respect.
A long line outside the Central Presbyterian Church, one of the more unusual SXSW venues, was one indication of the label’s resurgence. When I got inside, singer-songwriter, M. Ward had just finished his set, and the crowd was abuzz. “It was just him and his guitar and he was a total master,” said a fan behind me. Both of Ward’s 4AD albums, 2006’s Post-War and the new Hold Time, have cemented his reputation as one of indie rock’s more craftsmanlike tunesmiths.
The next act to take the stage under the giant crucifix was Department of Eagles, a four-man band that delivered a set of lurching songs with off-kilter rhythms that often built up into towering crescendos of sound. Steadfastly refusing to lock into a predictable rhythm or even a melody, their songs seemed to strain to break free of these idiosyncratic forms, but never did, creating a tension that held the crowd on the edges of their pew seats.
Following them was St. Vincent, an Austin act that clearly had lots of local fans in the house. Their sound is perhaps best described as arty chamber rock, and like Department of Eagles many of their songs swell toward cathartic, unsettling conclusions. But singer Annie Clark’s voice, which recalled the great 4AD singer Elizabeth Frazer, added a sweeter edge, especially on the love-soaked plea “Marry Me,” in which she sang, “We’ll do what Mary and Joseph did, without the kid.” And some of their songs took a more decidedly pop tilt, especially the brief but brilliant “Actor Out of Work,” which might have passed for power pop if not for the shards of electric guitar that punctuated it.
Scottish “twee” band Camera Obscura, newly signed to 4AD, concluded the night’s arc perfectly, playing pure pop that doesn’t challenge so much as delight. Singer Tracyanne Campbell, her hair in a bob and wearing a dress fit for a Sunday picnic, was an anti-rock-star frontwoman, making no effort to drop her inner geek or, for that matter, her Scottish accent. “This is our first shew in the steets for a while,” she said, “and our first shew in a warking church.” My wishes were fulfilled when they played “Let’s Get Out of This Country,” a perfect pop song from their last album that gave me solace in pre-election America. Their first 4AD album, My Maudlin Career, is due out next month.
All through the night, the intermission music consisted of great songs from the 4AD back catalog, like "You and Your Sister” and “Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil. While it was wonderful to hear these tunes, if they were intended to demonstrate the label’s excellence, they were superfluous: The music emanating from the stage did that very well.