SXSW Day 1 report: Celebrating weirdness with St. Vincent
Early in the afternoon at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, developing artists heard what could be perceived as some reassuring words in these uncertain economic times. "What's mainstream is not mainstream anymore," said Jeff Price, founder of digital-music distributor TuneCore. "The media just hasn't picked up on it yet. The mainstream is over there."
Wherever it is, there are 1,900 bands over the next four days angling for a piece of it.
Price was speaking on a panel about artist entrepreneurship, and amid the smattering of do-it-yourself tips, the panelists debated how to garner attention at a time when standard industry marketing practices are less guaranteed to work than ever. The consensus? Get weird.
"Aim for the edge," Price said. "Bring out your quirks. Stop trying to aim for the dead center."
If he's right, 2009 should be a boon year for Annie Clark, the singer-songwriter who records under the name St. Vincent. Clark was premiering songs from her forthcoming album, "Actor." Her songs spring from lovely chamber-pop arrangements. A melody may be laid-out by a flute, but Clark twists and distorts each of her lullabies -- a flash of guitar noise will suddenly appear, or the rhythm will momentarily feel out of step. But Clark, pictured above, keeps her tangents on point, letting an instrument briefly drift away but bleeding it back into the core melody before too long.
Clark was given the ideally surreal setting, performing in the Central Presbyterian Church just off the main club drag. When she opened with "The Strangers," the first track off her forthcoming album, due May 5, she was channeling another era. The songs off "Actor," however, are of a time and place all their own.
At the song's start, a flash of wind instruments may have conjured up images of a long lost Disney film, but things soon started to flirt with edginess. "Make the black hole blacker," Clark sang with understated grace -- more like a singer leading the school choir than one fronting a five-piece rock outfit. But a guitar hiss emerged, and the melody gradually increased until the only way out of the repetitive psychedelic swirl was to blow the whole tune to pieces with a burst of noise.
Clark may be just to the left of center, but she's not so out there that she can't enjoy a breezy, 2 1/2-minute melody. Stay tuned to hear "Out of Work Actor," a fast-moving pop nugget, and one that illustrated that Clark can drop some background "woo-woo's" over a melody just as easily as she can deconstruct one.
Other notes from the first day of SXSW music:
• Pop & Hiss already has devoted some Web space to Little Boots, the up-and-coming U.K. dance sensation pictured above. Expect her buzz to build steadily over the next few days, and she closed out the opening night at SXSW's "Fader Fort," annually one of the most consistent and packed unofficial SXSW parties. (Kanye West is slated to appear the Fort on Saturday with Cleveland's Kid Cudi.)
An adequate singer, Little Boots strives to freshen up retro synth sounds. She had no trouble getting the crowd to clap along to would-be disco anthems, all of them given a slight rock 'n' roll edge courtesy of a live drummer. She covered Queen's "Love Kills," replacing its passion with coldness, and showed her best potential for life outside the club on the fun-with-verbal-equations "Mathematics."
• Can the Silversun Pickups hold their liquor? One local-related tidbit at a panel dubbed "Annoying Things That Bands Do" came courtesy of Brooklyn club owner Jake McFadden, who had some fun with our city's favorite Smashing Pumpkins worshipers. He revealed to the room that the Silversun Pickups' tour rider asked for a bottle of "bar-sized Jameson" when the act played one of his clubs. No details will be posted on Pop & Hiss, but let's just say the lesson to the SXSW crowd? One doesn't always need to fulfill every request from a touring band. The Silversun Pickups will unveil songs from their forthcoming album "Swoon" at SXSW.
• Randoms: Australia's the Temper Trap is winning some attention for single "Sweet Disposition," and for good reason. With its sweet, falsetto vocals and plucky opening hook, the Temper Trap displayed an ability to build an anthem with elegance. It was the highlight of the Australian act's SXSW set, which largely lacked the subtle finesse of the act's lead single.
Later, I caught a bit of British newcomers the Post War Years after hearing some rave reviews from those walking the Austin streets. The Post War Years' strength lies in their rhythm section, and the act uses its dance-like beats as a framework for some electronic decorating, sacrificing big hooks for the groove.
Worth further investigation would be Oklahoma's Other Lives, which had an early-evening slot at the KCRW showcase. There's plenty of wide-open spaces in the rural rock of this five piece, and it's filled with either some devastating violin work or nicely placed piano flourishes.
-- Post and photos by Todd Martens