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SXSW: Bringing the Beat

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Arts, music, South by Southwest, SXSW,

Michael Benjamin Lerner from Telekinesis

 

It’s all about the rhythm. The entire premise of rock ’n’ roll is built on a solid backbeat, of course, but many of the bands at the Utne Reader-sponsored Team Clermont showcase at South by Southwest were notable for using extra drums, cymbals, tambourines, and sampled beats to infuse their music with an even more deeply percussive undertow.

The first two of the six bands were lessons in the basics. First act Ruby Isle, a keyboard-keyboard-drum trio, delivered manic electro-power pop fueled by a propulsive drummer in the classic style. Singer-keyboardist Mark Mallman was a complete spazz in a sleeveless flannel shirt, tight black jeans, and yellow track shoes, often perching on the utility ladder that served as his keyboard stand to gesticulate and grandstand. The trio used extensive sampled instrumental tracks to make up for their lack of guitars.

Telekinesis, a Beatles-infused Seattle quartet, also stuck to the standard beat prescription, but as a drummer-led band it stood out for its configuration, placing drummer, singer, and bandleader Michael Benjamin Lerner front and center. He came off as a fresh-faced schoolkid compared to the unhinged Mallman, focusing his intensity on the music instead of the audience as he played his hook-packed, often joyous pop.

Then things started to get farther out. Slaraffenland, an experimental-leaning outfit from Denmark, had a starting lineup of two guitars, sax, keyboards, and drums, but ended up switching in clarinet and trombone and sending some of the members back to the kit to help the drummer work the tom-toms and cymbals. Their highly unconventional songs had constantly shifting textures, traversing sounds from pop, rock, jazz, and art rock as each composition built to a controlled cacophony. One song deployed an unconvincing chant of “I won’t track you down,” which they repeated over a building techno beat; another deconstructed to a marchlike cadence; and another ended with three members drumming at once in a tribal exercise that felt like some sort of art-rock invocation.

The Modern Skirts from Athens, Georgia, tilted more toward pop but also brought an enhanced rhythm section as the keyboard player had both a piano and a snare drum. Despite their Athens pedigree and their ties to R.E.M. (whose Mike Mills produced a track on their album), they were more jumpy than jangly, often literally: Singer Jay Gulley spent half the gig in the air as he bobbed up and down. Still, their music would seem perfectly at home in the college-radio realm, and Gulley’s vocal similarities to Oasis were unmistakable.

Things slowed down for the next set, which was no surprise, since the band was called Casiotone for the Painfully Alone: Yes, it was downbeat electronica. Stationed behind a stack of keyboards and a tangle of wires, beefy, bearded Owen Ashworth sang in a beaten-down baritone about what appears to be a sorry mess of a life. I didn’t much care for his lo-fi, cheap keyboard sounds or his aggressively disaffected voice, but I’ll concede that more so than most of his electronica peers, he writes actual songs to hang his beats on.

Pulling us back from the brink was Mirah, a singer-songwriter who sang winsome, personal tunes with a folkie feel. Using soft mallets and standing, her drummer forged a soft pulse to underlay these confessional numbers. Mirah’s slight, quiet songs were sometimes lost in the din of a distracted audience, and I could see her going over well in a coffeehouse or similarly low-key venue.

The penultimate act of the day was Loney Dear, a Swedish outfit led by Emil Svanangen. He writes songs that in an earlier age could have passed as folk, but his electronic ornamentation makes them fully contemporary. Again, the rhythm was king, with a driving drummer, tambourines, and backing tracks fleshing out the beats. Loney Dear held the re-engaged audience rapt by mixing up moods and tempos, and a new song called “Summers” was a real treat, triumphant and wistful at once. At one point, Svanangen whistled the unmistakable melody from “Young Folks” by Peter, Bjorn and John, a sly nod to his fellow Swedes who became an international pop sensation. If he keeps this up, he could do the same.

 

tom hendricks
3/29/2009 10:38:21 PM

Keith, Some more points. There really hasn't been a hit song in years - that's a song that is so good others copy it, and it covers more than one narrow niche, and it is a hit - a big selling song. Seems we haven't had one in a long time because songwriting is so bad. That's why having a single good song is revolutionary. It shows you are trying to record a great song, not just some amateurish attempt to write your own and get some publishing dollars. We both agree rebellion wasn't there at SXSW. How can you have music that stands out if you just try to fit in. SXSW is becoming American Alt Idol. ' If you are a band, any kind of band, you are trying to fit in to a 60 year old style of music made best by your father's generation. How is that one drop of originality? Bands are so much a part of the established sameness of music, that the only true new music is anti-band or outside the band format. You can't redo everything a million times and then say its new. You can't imitate the most established music in history and call it groundbreaking - not with a straight face anyway. There is great music out there - see the big list of 100 best new music from the entire world from Youtube and Myspace. It is full of originality. That is quality new music - not trendiness by the trendiest! How can you assume that I think all Texans are any kind of idiots when I'm from Dallas - seriously - its' just people to the south of me and that think SXSW is somehow the best new music out there that could use some larnin' - and btw I have the right to keep up a healthy rivalry with other Texans. The real new music is probably either in Dallas or in Denton the college town north of Dallas. BTW Texas is an Indian word that means - better than where you came from!" LOL


keith goetzman_1
3/25/2009 9:44:54 AM

Tom, For someone who wasn't there you've got a lot of specific theories about why the conference sucked. Still, I'll address them one by one: 1) These are mostly bands who want to have a hit song, but don't yet. If you already have one, chances are you don't really need to play SXSW. 2) Yeah, real rebellion was in short supply, but why would anyone pay to attend SXSW if they wanted to rebel against it? 3) Sure, there's lots of Disneyfied, corporate rock out there, but again these types of bands tend not to play South by Southwest. And there wasn't a single American Idol winner performing at the fest, thankfully. 4) I heard lots of off-the-beaten-track bands with plenty of originality. And how does a guy who champions "anti-rock" also want hit songs? 5) Was there an anti-SXSW protest that I missed, with people holding "Rock Sucks" banners? And where is this "growing movement against rock"? I agree media coverage could be more skeptical, less boosterish, but this is a different issue. 6) I saw lots of fans having fun and getting excited about new music. Again, you weren't there. As for your final blast of provincialism, lobbing insults at Austin from Dallas is kind of like assuming that all Texans are redneck idiots. Keith Goetzman


tom hendricks
3/23/2009 10:22:45 PM

Though I was not there - I can only judge from the podcasts, and net coverage - I found a lot that wasn't 'playing'. I invite those who were there to give their input on my comments. 1. There wasn't a hit song. Know why we don't have one hit wonders anymore? We don't have one hit. Seems when everyone writes their own music, everyone records mediocre music. Sadly the music needs a hit, and desperately needs good professional talented songwriters. 2. There was not an ounce of rebellion. This may be the least rebellious generation yet. I see no reason to play music that is your father's oldsmobile, yet this generation seems bent on fitting in instead of standing out in any way. 3. There was not a whiff of talk about how rock is so bad it has become everything it started out opposing. There is an overall Disneyfication of music that turns real music into Ameridan Idol corporate music contests. 4. There was not a bit of originality. No one brought anti rockor anything that was truely new or original to the festival. Everyone caved into the established order of bland bands. 5. There was no fair media coverage. The media refused to cover any opposition to the festival, or to the clone music or to the growing movement against rock or anything else. Music media has turned into an infomercial for blandness. We need fair media. 6. There wasn't that much fun or excitement that comes from new music - the reason for the festival in the first place. We in Dallas say, "When music goes south you end up in Austin!"