SXSW Day 2: The Besnard Lakes go big, and one for the losers
When it comes to venues around Austin, Texas, few can be as unforgiving as the large outdoor gravel bucket that is the barbecue joint/amphitheater Stubb's. Just Wednesday night, the first evening of South by Southwest showcases, the hotly tipped new project between Danger Mouse and the Shins' James Mercer, Broken Bells, received warm-to-mixed reviews, with many an attendee noting that the act's intimate orchestrations didn't quite translate outside of a club.
Thursday night, however, featured an indie act that's primed and deserving of the big stage. The Besnard Lakes have a stunner of a new album in "The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night," and the band's majestic harmonies and oceanic waves of guitars feel like they could move canyons. Songs materialized out of bass notes so low that passersby could be forgiven for thinking a storm was coming, and the back- and-forth vocals of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas were as transfixing as any instrumental flourishes.
The two-part "Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent" showed off everything the Montreal band does well, complete with multiple layers of vocals and guitars that don't riff so much as ebb. Indeed, the band's music constantly felt in motion, with tender moments seamlessly swelling to a howl. Words such as "epic" and "cinematic" get tossed around quite a bit in pop criticism, but for a band that can make a falsetto feel as if it's a piece of an orchestra, the adjectives more than apply.
Other notes from Day 2 of SXSW:
One to keep an eye on: I started my evening with Austin's own the Ghost Songs. My colleague Ann Powers closed her evening by catching psychedelic legend Roky Erickson, and there were moments when the Ghost Songs struck a vintage, "Nuggets"-era garage-rock sound similar to Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators, although the Ghost Songs went for something far more charming and approachable. Led by the woozy-voiced Chris Catalena, the band, performing what it said was its second show ever, already wraps its melodies with a sense of adventurousness. The multiple vocals -- sometimes deliberately out of sync -- add a sense of mystery, and Stephanie Hunt's violin adds a slight back-porch feel. It's a bit tripped-out, and more than a little playful.
"Tramps like us": New Jersey's Titus Andronicus are ambitious -- and fearless. The rootsy punk outfit sees no shame in riffing on classic Bruce Springsteen lyrics, its songs a sometimes reckless reaction to all things pop culture. "Tramps like us, baby, we were born to die," Patrick Stickles sang in set-opener "A More Perfect Union," and the band was off and running. Think of what the Pogues may have sounded like if they grew up near Asbury Park, with lengthy, breathless songs loaded with a half a dozen shifts in direction and twice as many hooks. The band's latest, "The Monitor," is supposedly a concept album inspired by the Civil War, but it's largely just about surviving the recession on the East Coast. On "No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future," the band turns the phrase "you will always be a loser" into something of a defiant chant. The band's songs draw clear battle lines between the haves and the have-nots, and Titus Andronicus doesn't exactly identify with the former.
First impression: Paris-based electro-rapper Uffie was honestly not on my list of 80-plus acts to potentially see at SXSW. Having spent some time on her MySpace page, I was bored by her pop-tart poses and aren't-these-shocking lyrics. Yet some changes in scheduling allowed me to stumble into one of her afternoon sets, and I walked away a believer. Her debut, "Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans," will be released in late May, and she has an upcoming single with Pharrell Williams. She performed the song, "ADD SUV," on Thursday, and like much of Uffie's spry dance cuts, it revealed an artist who's willing to poke as much fun at herself as she is at the boys who chase her. Though she repeatedly noted it was "weird" to play in the daytime, Uffie was all smiles at SXSW, and her songs popped with effervescent, club-ready backdrops.
The night's best stage presence: Another pop-star hopeful from across the pond, VV Brown, gave a commanding set on Thursday night, even covering Drake's "Best I Ever Had." In Brown's hands, the song took on darker undertones -- a hip-hop soul cut with an edge of frustration. The rest of her set was fast and upbeat, and carried a surprising rock 'n' roll bent. Coming on stage in a Mardi Gras-ready mask, Brown proceeded to rip through decades and styles, borrowing equally from girl groups and hip-hop.
This post is being written close to 5 a.m., so now it gets random: The Low Anthem dug deep into the blues, and came to the surface with something rather atmospheric. The three-piece gets plenty of mileage out of its members, as there's a ton of instrument swapping, and all of it is used to explore a full spectrum of Americana sounds. I closed my night with peppy and celebratory indie rock outfit the Broken Social Scene, who load up their songs with horn sections and jangly, shout-along choruses. Metric's Emily Haines was a welcome guest, arriving to perform "Anthem for a 17-Year-Old Girl." After a five-year absence, the band is back with a new album this spring, and songs such as "Water in Hell" didn't sound nearly as grave as the title.
-- Todd Martens
Upper photo: The Besnard Lakes. Credit: Jack Plunkett
Center photo: The Ghost Songs. Credit: Todd Martens
Lower photo: Uffie. Credit: Jack Plunkett