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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.